Review: The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. Produced by ArtsWest Playhouse. Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton. With Reginald Andrè Jackson and Brianne A. Hill. Now through October 5 at ArtsWest.
ArtsWest managed a theatrical coup when they snagged the rights to The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s celebrated and Olivier Award winning play about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s life. It’s a hot property right now with major regional theater companies around the country staging the two character play which is set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the night before King was assassinated. The West Seattle theater enlisted some major talent to bring the play to life including celebrated director Valerie Curtis-Newton and popular local actor, Reginald Andrè Jackson to play Dr. King. Though The Mountaintop is relatively small in scale; only two actors and one set, the play requires two very strong actors to portray these roles, and a strong design team to execute the required special effects demanded by Ms Hall’s transmagical script. It’s a gamble for a smaller theater company to stage complicated works with little assurance that an audience will find it and embrace it.
But, it was a gamble that paid off for ArtsWest because this production of The Mountaintop is a fiercely directed, boldly acted and brilliantly designed tour de force for the theater company. It’s compelling, engaging and riveting theater from start to finish. Ms Curtis-Newton’s direction firmly navigates the complicated waters of the script. It’s the typical assured handling of material that Seattle theater goers have come to expect from the director. This production more than justifies her current nomination for this year’s Stranger Genius Award in theater. Valerie Curtis-Newton’s direction is seemingly always executed at a genius level of expertise and artistry.
Some of her expert direction is also aided by the fact she has two ideally cast actors playing these roles and giving superb performances. Reginald Andrè Jackson is a local actor that I’ve long admired but never completely warmed to; his performances and the roles he has played in the past have felt tentative and he has frequently been the victim of some poor casting decisions. But here, he is ideally cast and gives the performance of a lifetime. It’s a vibrant, energy charged piece of work that carefully explores all the strengths and frailties of MLK. Mr. Jackson has also obviously spent considerable time working on the accent; in his cadences and breath control he astonishingly captures the voice and the spirit of the civil rights leader. It’s a compelling, passionate performance that needs to be experienced by a large audience.
brianne a. hill, (the lack of capital letters is the actor’s choice), might have a tougher role to play than that of Martin Luther King; after all, an actor has a considerable amount of material to consult to play a “real life” character. Ms hill has to start from scratch to create “Camae”, the somewhat mysterious motel maid with a sassy and frequently profane mouth and a seemingly endless supply of Pall Mall cigarettes stashed on her person. It could be easy to fall into cliché when playing a trashier than thou kind of character but the actress carefully creates a full bodied and richly complete portrayal of a young woman who has lived a lot of life in a short period of time. The chameleon like nature of the role can be both a gift, and a curse, but Ms hill treats the role like the greatest gift of all, handling the anger and the rage, just as deftly as she handles the innocence and the flirtation. She’s a perfectly matched partner with Mr. Jackson and their teamwork is unified and powerfully dramatic.
All of the design elements for this production are top notch and well executed. For anyone familiar with the actual location of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis (now a museum), Burton Yuen’s precisely detailed set will make you gasp; it’s a brilliant recreation and one done with not a huge budget. That great detail is also apparent in Dani Norberg’s superbly atmospheric lighting design and Harry Todd Jamieson’s evocative sound work. All these design elements (and, Melanie Taylor Burgess’s fine costumes) work brilliantly together to create a gorgeous unified whole. Also: the final third of the play require some rather complicated effects and projections and the crew at ArtsWest have done a terrific job of pulling them off. This is a show that dazzles on many levels.
And, now for a little negativity but the kind that’s not directed toward the specific production but rather to the play itself and its plot. For the first two thirds or so of The Mountaintop I enjoyed the story as conceived by playwright Katori Hall. A lonely and somewhat frustrated Dr. Martin Luther King is alone in his cheap motel room, working on a future speech and fighting a raspy voice and vexing cough. He calls for room service to bring him some coffee on this stormy night in April of 1968 and a spunky young motel maid named Camae enters to challenge him on the final night of his life. The mysteriousness of Camae subtly propels the story along…WHO is she and WHY is she here in this room with Dr. King? Sadly, for me, the answer is a bit contrived and hokey in a “rather cheesy episode of The Twilight Zone sort of way”. Once the “twist” of The Mountaintop is revealed, the story as a whole begins to fall apart. It’s just too….literal. This play is new enough that I won’t spoil the “twist” but I will say I’m not the only viewer or critic who has had a problem with it. The play doesn’t derail but a less….fanciful version of the nature of Camae’s character would be welcome by many. (The conceit of the character would work far better if there had been ambiguity about the character…in my humble opinion.)
Regardless of how you feel about that plot development, the superb direction, acting and design work of ArtsWest’s production of The Mountaintop will prevail. It’s a must see theater event.