By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
The importance of the subject matter exceeds the quality of the play in Arizona Theatre Company’s presentation of “The Mountaintop” by young Memphis playwright Katori Hall.
“The Mountaintop” became an award-winning surprise hit in London in 2009. A more modest reception was waiting on Broadway in September, 2011, when the show opened a four-month run with mixed reviews.
Now Hall’s imagined story of Martin Luther King’s last night in that low budget Memphis hotel before his shocking assassination the next afternoon will seek lots of new fans on the far friendlier regional theater circuit.
ATC favorite Lou Bellamy directs an excellent two-person cast of James T. Alfred as King and Erika LaVonn as the feisty motel maid Camae, who becomes a more celestial personage half-way through the 90-minute performance.
A detailed stage set by Vicki Smith perfectly captures the tawdry standards of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968, where the double occupancy rate is $12 and doesn’t include any TV.
Realistic sounding thunder adds to the glum atmosphere as King paces restlessly, finally a man left alone, his charisma drained after addressing a union meeting of the city’s sanitation workers.
Although his speech to them earlier that evening would become the famous “mountaintop speech,” he wonders if the speech was good enough. And always putting his hopes in the future, he practices on some lines for his next speech. A speech he will never deliver.
Thus, we are set up for what seems to be a look behind the curtain at the person behind the image of 39-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When bright-eyed and freedom-loving Camae comes in wearing her starched motel uniform, it feels like King the man has met a kindred spirit. These two strike up an affecting match, bouncing zippy dialogue off each other, feeling the momentum build.
If the idea that King and this maid would soon be rolling around on the bed in a pillow fight seems far-fetched, within the context of the play it does develop logically enough. But there is still another 45 minutes or so to go.
Here is where Hall’s play abruptly shifts into a more allegorical, metaphorical, symbolical work that lifts up this famous preacher with his equally famous feet of clay, burnishes the magnificence of his image to such a luster that those clay feel can never matter, then goes even further.
Alfred and Bellamy have pumped considerable power into the man’s role. On stage the actor conjures up great oratorical force, accompanied by a politician’s Teflon charisma; but also makes us believe he can sit crumpled up on the edge of a motel bed and wonder how he will ever manage to muster the massive amounts of energy to keep making non-violence the people’s choice.
That’s still not enough for Hall. Now released from the theatrical bonds of stage reality she wants nothing less than to place King into a more shimmering mythology of Heaven’s own beings.
Whether or not you want to go along for the whole ride is a personal choice. But for sure, when that fantastical ending is still echoing in your head while walking out of the theater, you will also be appreciating how much King’s struggle for the Promised Land still has to go.
“The Mountaintop” continues Tuesdays through Sundays to Nov. 9 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $32-$67. For details and reservations: 520-622-2823, www.arizonatheatre.org