Martin Luther King Jr.'s feet stank. At least they did April 3, 1968, in playwright Katori Hall's imagined scenario of the night before the great leader was assassinated. It makes sense. Yours might stink too after trudging back to your motel room in a torrential storm while wearing the same dress shoes you donned earlier that evening to proselytize passionately in a poorly air-conditioned Memphis church, where your words rattled the rafters with oratorical flourishes both inspiring and premonitory: "I've seen the promised land... I might not get there with you."
Nevertheless, it's unusual and refreshing to see King this way, as a human being with problems shared by most of us. We're used to seeing him as more icon than man — a talking head on YouTube or, every third Monday of January, on CNN, where snippets of video revisit history's embodiment of nonviolence and racial harmony. In Hall's The Mountaintop, which is enjoying its South Florida premiere at GableStage, he's much more than his sound bites.
Played by C. Anthony Jackson, King enters his room at the Lorraine Motel battling a cough. He could really use a smoke and a fresh cup of coffee. Mulling over his next speech in his head, he has moments of doubt about its confrontational topic: Why America is going to hell. "They're going to burn me on the cross for that one," he mutters to himself. Soon, anxiety and justifiable paranoia take hold. Aware that he has, as he mentions later, "an FBI file bigger than the Bible," he checks his rotary-dial telephone for a listening device.
The Mountaintop: Through April 13 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119, gablestage.org. Tickets cost $52 to $55.
Any minute now, King is anticipating his colleague, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, to return to his room with a requested pack of Pall Malls. But it soon becomes clear he might as well wait for Godot. Company does arrive, however, in the form of room service — a maid by the name of Camae (Karen Stephens), delivering coffee and plenty of Southern spunk.
It's Camae's first night on the job, but she's willing to risk spending an inordinate amount of time in King's room. Casting a spell on the pastor (women were one of his weaknesses) while resisting King's advances, she flatters his ego one minute and calls him on his bullshit the next. You begin to get the impression it's all calculated.
This production is never more engaging than in the first, electric half-hour between King and Camae. It is a flirtatious and mysterious testing of waters in which effortless wit, erotic tension, and precisely timed thunderbolts pull them closer, push them apart, and lure them closer again. Joseph Adler's direction emphasizes the rhythm in their conversations, drawing out unspoken desires with poise and patience.
Both of the main parts are acted exceedingly well. Jackson portrays King as a complex figure rife with conflicts and contradictions. In Stephens' authentic regional drawl, Hall's words sound better and funnier than ever. When Stephens hops on one of the motel room's double beds and offers her version of a fiery civil rights speech, she is transfixing and transformative, one of many signs this fascinating figure is more than just a maid.
The problem arrives with Hall's big reveal, the moment we've all been waiting for, which I won't spoil. Hall does a fine enough job spoiling her own work. It suffices to say this couple's power dynamic shifts as the play meanders toward a metaphysical morass, a narrative gamble that flies so wildly off course it might as well be a Malaysian airplane. It culminates in a risible nadir involving a certain phone call, wherein the naturalistic humor of the play's first half gives way to broad comedy suggestive of a mediocre Catskills routine.
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But when Hall isn't trivializing her important subject matter, she's preaching to us with didactic sentimentality, turning the play into a sermon. It's perhaps no surprise this is not Adler's best work as a director; the decision to employ a creeping musical score underscores an experience that increasingly becomes too silly and manipulative to be truly moving.
Yet Jackson and Stephens soldier on so well that, though the story's choices become disastrous, the production is never boring. It helps that it's gorgeous to look at. Lyle Baskin's three-dimensional scenic design incorporates a vintage "Lorraine Motel" sign, visible from the window of the motel room interior and authentically lit by Jeff Quinn, while a steady stream of realistic rain patters the ground. Thunderclaps from sound designer Matt Corey rumble in the near distance, setting an atmosphere of turbulence that begins even before the play starts.
But there's no denying that The Mountaintop addresses some powerful ideas. Through the tête-à-tête between King and Camae, it explores King's duality as both human and demigod. It questions everything from the prevailing modes of popular protest to the militant separatism of Malcolm X to the optimistic inclusiveness of King. And it debates the wisdom and merits of King's off-the-reservation speeches opposing the war in Vietnam when, as some believe, he should have concentrated singularly on civil rights. These were, and are, real issues, and they make it all the more difficult to accept a plot twist that undermines the play's verisimilitude.
So what is The Mountaintop? An entertaining and vital example of historical inquiry through theater or a self-indulgent, spectacular failure? Like King himself, who could be both womanizer and inspirational leader — man and myth — it's both.