The setup: The 2009 London première of American playwright Katori Hall's The Mountaintop made her the first black woman to receive the Olivier Award for Best New Play. The show moved to Broadway in 2011 and is now the second production in Arizona Theatre Company's 2013-14 season.
Like the works of Nicholas Wright (Mrs. Klein), The Mountaintop imagines what might have occurred in undocumented private moments of the life of a historical figure -- in this case, it's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., alone in his Memphis motel room on the night before his April 1968 assassination. The action occurs mere yards from the balcony where he was shot.
The execution: Fresh from its Tucson run, this two-character play has some of the most assured performances I've ever seen from ATC. James T. Alfred, who works frequently with director Lou Bellamy at Minnesota's Penumbra Theatre Company, which co-produced this mounting at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, is both human and charismatic as Dr. King. As motel chambermaid Camae, Erika LaVonn is remarkable, and not only because she doesn't face the constraints of playing a real and revered person.
For about the first two thirds of this intermission-free show, King and Camae (as well as Alfred and LaVonn) interact in a way that's a simple theatrical joy to watch. There's some hero worship, sexual tension, embarrassment, and schooling for each. Physically, vocally, and psychologically, each step is spontaneous yet sure. The warm, genuine humor is not oversold.
As the supernatural, dream, or subconscious world (it's left open, in my opinion) begins to creep in around the edges, the stakes rise and the relationship alters significantly, and the reason this shift works is the groundwork the production has laid up to that point. The final several minutes felt to me like pure Spielbergian emotional manipulation and the weakest part of Hall's script.
I can't say it doesn't work, though, and it left me more angry than inspired. If MLK could or does see where U.S. civil rights stand now, 45 years later, I think he'd be only momentarily impressed by the advances and sadly horrified (and then, ideally, re-inspired) by what remains to be done.
Finally, I have to show you a picture of Vicki Smith's set with the drapes open. You get to admire the iconic Lorraine Motel sign from the moment you enter the theater, and the thunderstorm (and Alfred's performance) begins several minutes before the play officially starts and he closes the drapes. The image burns for the rest of your time in your seat.
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The verdict: Going to The Mountaintop is so entertaining that it's irrelevant, artistically speaking, whether you wind up feeling as though you've engaged in an act of civic duty. However, it's understandable and probably a good thing if you do. The Mountaintop continues through Sunday, December 1, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Purchase tickets ($49 to $72) here or call 602-256-6995.