PORTLAND – About halfway through Portland Stage’s current production, “The Mountaintop,” a fictional, near-fantasy account by Katori Hall of the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life in a Memphis motel room, I heard the echo of Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) :
“This is not a biography; is the confession of every man who struggles.”
Those words, from the global literary classic “The Last Temptation of Christ” tells a dreamy account of a Jesus who, while about to be crucified, is tempted one last time by imagining a life where he does not die for the sins of mankind, but instead enjoys the safety of marriage, fatherhood, and old age.
Until he snaps out of it, sees he chose the harder road, and fulfills his destiny on the Cross.
In that same vein, “The Mountaintop,” directed by Charles Weldon, takes us on a similar climb. We find ourselves on the evening of Arpil 3, 1968, in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
There, after having earlier delivered his final speech, known today as “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” Rev. King (Harvy Blanks) orders room service – a request fulfilled by a smooth-talking, Pall Mall-smoking, Irish Whisky flask-toting maid, Camae (Kim Staunton).
But Camae is more than just a maid, she is a recently ascended angel – a black woman recently attacked and killed by a white man – who has been handed a tough first assignment by God to guide Dr. King through his death the next day, and bring him home to his eternal residence in Heaven.
Camae also has the power to show King the future, call God on the hotel phone, and just about every other whimsical device one can imagine, like dropping an April snow in Memphis.
And whimsy, perhaps is the best word to describe the method by which Ms. Hall has her characters ascend “The Mountaintop.”
Blanks did not strike me at first as an apt King, but then, sitting in the darkness and watching his superb rendition of the ordinary, I changed tack. My own expectations of portraying the civil rights leader were rooted in decades of old newsreels, recordings of his speeches, and other historical narratives about his powerful, magnetic presence – not to mention my faint boyhood memories.
But King was, after all, not a perfect man. Rather he was a skilled and dedicated messenger at the right time and in the right place to be a catalyst for change – but most of all, to be martyred. Blanks wore that trepidation well, and showed both the fear and defiance of death Ms. Hall had loaded into her script.
Staunton not only complemented Blanks like a glove fitting over the correct hand, but more so carried her own load through no small amount of humor, an element which eased the ever-mounting tension of unfolding events. Her powerful performance of both culture and caricature, and her evolving empathy of Blanks’ plight, made one wonder at times if the play was more about her.
And then Staunton, aided by Hall’s script and the superior sound and light effects, let go, finding the shadows with perfect timing. To her credit, she shed tears which I suspect had little to do with her acting, and more to do with the emotion of the message sent forth to the audience.
Sound by Gregg Carville and lights by Ves Weaver excelled. The temporal flow of both aided this period piece. One should not be repulsed by kitschy music heralding angelic presence, or twinkling stars lighting up a Disney-like sky: that’s exactly the point.
Costumes by Frank Champa added to the heightened 1960s feel, and Anita Stewart once again shows us how a Spartan set design can speak so loudly as part of the action itself. Finally, Shane Van Vliet’s crisp stage management must be lauded as part of this extraordinary show.
Cultural commentators who claim “The Mountaintop” displays superb storytelling and empathy, but doesn’t take it one step further and affect action, are ignoring this very facet of the human condition: we are more likely to act a certain way if we first manage to feel comfortable with the direction said action is taking.
And so, like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” this show is the confession of every man who struggles – that is, Ms. Hall’s best cut at it.
The fact that numerous audience members were wiping away tears at play’s end should not be surprising. This was my same reaction years earlier when finishing Kazantzakis’ masterpiece, which gave us a view of what a fallible Jesus Christ might look like.
There, he had written the following:
“In publishing it I have fulfilled my duty, the duty of a person who struggled much, was much embittered in his life, and had many hopes. I am certain that every free man who reads this book, so filled as it is with love, will more than ever before, better than ever before, love Christ.”
And in this play, Portland Stage Company gives us the MLK not of legend and newsreels, but of the mind’s eye behind a closed motel room door. There he was more human than icon, which in turn makes us look in the mirror at our own struggles, bitterness, and hopes.
Those are the starting blocks from which we can head up to the mountaintop ourselves, and take action fueled by love, not hate.
“The Mountaintop” runs through November 22 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).
Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.
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