It's the surprise that's no surprise, when it comes to regional theater—a superior production is staged on a shoestring budget, while a company with significantly greater resources somehow fails to meet the same standard.
At the outset of Justice Theater Project's THE MOUNTAINTOP, we're struck by the conspicuously modest accommodations in designer Deb Royals' take on Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. The paint is chipped around the deadbolt lock, and fake pine paneling abuts the plastic accordion door to the bathroom on the opposite wall. But in a Southern city like Memphis in the 1960s, these are the lodgings for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his associates in the civil rights movement.
In its opening moments, Katori Hall's play is preoccupied with what have become, by necessity, the mundane late-night rituals of the itinerant activist. King immediately locks the door and draws the shades upon entering; he stops when calling room service to check the rotary phone and nightstand for wiretaps. When calling his wife, he covers the homefront and the kids—before he asks about the latest anonymous phone threats they've received.
Shortly, a maid, Camae, arrives with coffee and tomorrow's paper. Good-natured small talk and mild flirtation take the edge off a stressful day, providing a welcome moment of distraction before King sets to work on another speech, another sermon.
But as those who caught The Mountaintop's 2013 regional premiere at PlayMakers Rep already know, Hall briskly escalates the stakes in this two-person play. For tonight is not like any other night. It's April 3, 1968, the last night of King's life. And what starts out as innocuous banter among strangers turns into a most unlikely exit interview, one in which King will ultimately have to stand in judgment of his life's work.
In his first time in the director's chair, Jade Arnold's casting decisions have paid major dividends. Phillip Bernard Smith delivers the finest work of his career as an impassioned King. Since Hall's script underlines the civil rights leader's foibles as well as his dreams, an actor must have considerable emotional bandwidth to convey the character's stubbornness, vanity, lechery and fears, along with his deep compassion, morality and love.
The role of his inquisitor is no less a challenge, and Lakeisha Coffey surpasses it as Camae, a woman who knows much more about King than she first lets on. Coffey's Camae is by turns brash and abashed, sacred and profane, kind but no-nonsense. She's appreciative of King's achievements while remaining candid about the limitations of the movement and the man. "Marching only gets you so far, Dr. King," she says early on, before later admonishing, "It ain't all about you. Like most men, you ain't going to be able to finish what you started."
Under Arnold's direction, these two actors plumb the depths of their characters' darkest moments, before ascending to realize their greatest aspirations. It's quite a trip to the titled location. But the view there is something worth seeing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mountaintop approval "