By Chad Jones
The Martin Luther King Jr. we meet in Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop" isn't orating magnificently on a theme of civil rights for all. Rather, he's hollering after someone about a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. Once alone in his Lorraine Motel room in Memphis, Hall's King is further deconstructed as just an ordinary man. He takes his shoes off and his feet stink — he calls it "marching feet." Then we hear him going to the bathroom just off stage (he washes his hands after).
Thus begins the demystification process of Hall's play, an award-winner in London three years ago and a 2011 New York star vehicle for Samuel L. Jackson (making his Broadway debut) and Angela Bassett. Now Hall's piece of re-imagined history is spreading out across the land.
In its local premiere at the Lucie Stern Theatre courtesy of TheatreWorks, "The Mountaintop" appears to be part of a campaign to pull the Rev. King off his pedestal. The play roots around in his humanity a bit, then returns him to the pantheon of great Americans with a renewed sense of appreciation and respect for what this man, who was mortal after all, was able to accomplish.
Hall takes her title from what has come to be known as King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech delivered April 3, 1968, in a Memphis church the night before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. It's in that speech that King said, prophetically: "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will."
Hall catches up with King in Room 306 just after that speech, on a stormy night. The great man is trying to write another speech, "Why America Is Going to Hell." He's exhausted — only 39 but with the weariness of a much older man. So it's no surprise he's so easily distracted by Camae, a spirited maid who brings him a cup of coffee and happily shares her pack of Pall Malls and a whole lot of excited conversation.
"I cuss worser than a sailor with the clap," Camae says after a string of expletives has spilled out of her star-struck babble. She plays the backwoods innocent, but she knows what she's doing. She's thrilled to be in the presence of a man whom she knows from watching on TV down at Woolworth's, but she's no dummy. She's certainly smart enough to know when King is coming on to her.
Adrian Roberts as King and Simone Missick as Camae have striking stage chemistry, which is vital to this 90-minute two-hander. Roberts has the burden of portraying one of the most revered men in 20th-century history while allowing the flawed portrait Hall paints to render him in human rather than mythic terms. He does so admirably, and when we do see Hall's King unleash the magic, it's a convincing and welcome moment.
Lovely and charming, Missick is a delight as Camae, even when she's asked to do sometimes ridiculous things like putting on King's suit jacket and shoes and delivering a speech she wishes he'd give. When Hall's play takes a narrative turn, whether or not the audience turns with it is almost entirely up to Missick. She has to be a believable guide into hyper-theatrical territory.
The good news is that Missick is more than up to the task. She and Roberts, under the astute direction of Anthony J. Haney, are excellent, even when the play isn't.
Hall takes some imaginative leaps, and that in itself is an admirable thing. She takes a reasonably realistic play in a rundown motel room (set by Eric Sinkkonen) and sends it into some wild places to underscore King's importance, even with all his flaws. But Hall's writing isn't strong enough to sustain the theatrical structure she has created. Like the lightning and thunder in the lighting and sound design, there are flashes of humor and poetry and nobility, but there's also filler and silliness and the least convincing phone conversations you're likely to hear on a professional stage.
Hall has the ambition and imagination of a Tony Kushner but the dialogue writing skills of a decent sitcom scribe. She doesn't build dramatic tension so much as let the weight of history do it for her. When the TheatreWorks matinee crowd shouts an enthusiastic "amen" when Dr. King calls for one, it's not really because of the play. When Dr. King — who happens to be standing on a pedestal at this point — asks you to testify, you testify. It's too bad "The Mountaintop" doesn't do more with that power than play theatrical games.
"The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall, presented by TheatreWorks at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Through April 7 with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (schedule varies April 1-7). Tickets are $23-$73 general; discounts for students, seniors and educators. Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.