Performing Arts

March 16, 2014

GableStage‘s ‘The Mountaintop’ ascends to excellence

C. Anthony Jackson and Karen Stephens power an imaginative play about Martin Luther King Jr.

Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop has become one of the most-produced plays in American regional theater over the past two seasons. Why is that? Look no further than GableStage’s engaging, exquisite new production of the Olivier Award-winning play to understand the reasons for its success.

A highly imaginative piece of theater merging comedy and drama, The Mountaintop is a two-character play centered around the last full night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life: April 3, 1968.

The script provides the sort of meaty, complex roles that attract excellent actors, and GableStage artistic director Joseph Adler has assembled a little dream cast in C. Anthony Jackson as King and Karen Stephens as Camae, a maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Though the setup seems straightforward, though the action never leaves the place that will become the scene of King’s assassination, Hall layers surprise after surprise into her text, allowing Adler, Jackson and Stephens to take audiences on a wildly theatrical ride.

Hall offers glimpses of the well-known public King, the civil rights leader and inspirational orator. Coming off his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple earlier that day, the weary King practices snippets of a new speech, looking into the mirror over his bedside sink while waiting for his friend Ralph Abernathy to return with his desperately needed pack of Pall Malls.

That King — the secret smoker, the all-too-human man sacrificing his health and family time for the cause, the death-threat target who has learned to check his motel rooms for listening devices — is the man Hall explores in The Mountaintop.

His foil is Camae, a first-day-on-the-job maid who dashes through a rainstorm to bring King coffee, conversation and advice. She’s an admirer, and he appreciates a pretty woman as much as the next man, so friendliness turns to flirtation as they smoke and chat. Soon, though, King suspects that Camae isn’t what she seems to be. He’s right about that, though his idea that she’s been sent to spy on him is way off base.

The rest of the play’s secrets deserve to be withheld, so that audiences can experience those surprises in the moment through the artful work of Adler, Jackson, Stephens and the topnotch GableStage design team. Kudos to Lyle Baskin, whose period-perfect motel room set sports cascading rain outside the window; Jeff Quinn, whose lighting sets the mood from the get-go; Matt Corey, the sound designer who summons thunder and infuses music into just the right moments; Ellis Tillman, whose costumes make King look rumpled and Camae seem as fresh as her commentary; and projection designer Jeff Sugg, who provides a kind of We Didn’t Start the Fire look at the sorrows of the world in the years after King’s departure.

As for the performances, they’re of the quality that wins awards: funny at first, richly layered, deeply moving.

Jackson, who has portrayed King and delivered his speeches many times, has the casual and formal cadences of King’s speech down cold. The actor gives himself over to the complexities of Hall’s King, to the fear, desire, ego, despair and sense of mission. Ultimately, his warts-and-all King is a man who evokes compassion.

Stephens is a wonder in her GableStage debut. She’s funny, self-assured, alluring and in control. When Camae dons King’s suit coat and hops onto one of the beds to deliver a speech that morphs from reasonable to faux incendiary, Stephens nails King’s oratorical style. She and this production of The Mountaintop deserve an “amen” chorus.

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