By Katori Hall, Through May 5
TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., (860) 527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org
This play is a brave leap of imagination that takes just a little too long to achieve lift off. Katori Hall has taken up the challenge of writing a play about a historical hero — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — that presents him as an ordinary man who smokes and swears and flirts and otherwise does what people do. Some may find this offensive, especially if they are sensitive to cursing, but for me the play works to humanize heroism and thus make it a little more possible to imagine that it's something any of us can achieve, if we see our moment and hold to our best selves.
The Mountaintop is set on April 3, 1968, in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee: the night before King's assassination. The setting is painstakingly recreated at TheaterWorks. Set designer Evan Anderson assisted on the Broadway production and traveled to Memphis where he was allowed to enter the room itself, now preserved as a museum, and take exact measurements, match colors, and photograph details down to the scuff marks on the walls. There's an exhibit upstairs from the theater with some of his photos and research. This is, to my mind, a fine way to pay respect to the importance of the man and the subject the play takes up.
But don't be fooled by all the naturalistic details into thinking that this is a naturalist play: it's not, and it really comes into its own as a piece of theater once the playwright leaves realism behind and vaults into another realm. I just wish it happened a little sooner: until it does, both actors in the piece seemed to be ill at ease and struggling to find their centers in the early show I saw.
Jamil A.C. Mangan has the impossible job of playing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The play requires him to hold off on unleashing his full vocal powers until the very final moments, and without the use of that tool he is not fully credible as the familiar icon — so the performance can work only because he is playing the hero off duty. Courtney Thomas plays the hotel maid Camae, who is far more than she appears to be at first glance. It's in this character that the playwright's imagination has taken flight, and Thomas brings edgy energy, profanity, and profundity to bear as needed. Slight of frame, she's able to fill the space with irreverence and intrigue as she works toward her real mission — one that I won't reveal here. At certain crucial moments, she's aided by abrupt light and sound design that is overtly theatrical and effective.
Rob Ruggiero as director thus uses his design team to fine effect. He's elicited performances that are detailed and nuanced. He's helped the actors forge a connection that seems very strong and open. He's created blocking that avoids being stilted or repetitive despite the constraints of a cramped hotel room with two single beds and not a lot of open space. I just wish the play got to where it is going a little faster. Know that this is not really a play for kids, and it isn't a hagiography, but it is a play of spirit and depth. I recommend it for all who are ready for a different take on one of our nation's martyrs.