In a dingy hotel room on his last night on Earth, Martin Luther King Jr. is about to have a singular, metaphysical experience in The Mountaintop, Katori Hall's intriguing, if flawed, play that gets a somewhat uneven production at the hands of Penumbra Theatre.
Hall tries to do so much in the play's 90 minutes, examining both King the myth and King the man. Her effort is aided by a terrific lead performance from James T. Alfred, along with clear-eyed direction from Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy.
But it's not surprising that this show, produced by Penumbra and the Arizona Theatre Company and presented at the Guthrie Theater, has an uneven feel. Its short history is loaded with plaudits (including an Olivier Award for its original London production) and failures (a not-at-all lauded run on Broadway). In her exploration of the different sides of King's character and legacy, Hall wades into considerably muddy waters as she attempts to build the show.
The play begins simply enough, as the exhausted civil rights leader calls down for a cup of coffee, which arrives a few minutes later, delivered by a maid on her first day of work, Camae (Erika LaVonn). Camae sticks around after making her delivery, which is our first clue that there is something more here than we see on the surface. King — whose wandering eyes are well documented — is certainly intrigued by Camae's charms, but their conversation gets deeper as time goes on.
This gives Hall a chance to look at King from a variety of different angles. "You're bigger than the Beatles," Camae tells him when they first meet, and, indeed, the mythic side of King takes on greater importance as the play moves along.
Eventually, the larger issues about legacy and history threaten to overwhelm the actual human drama playing out before us on stage. It doesn't help that the second-to-last scene takes us on a historical survey with all the subtlety and grace of an Oscar-night montage.
Still, what we do have is some sharp direction from Bellamy, who moves the story smoothly from the real to the fantastic, and a stunning performance from Alfred, who is sublime as King, embracing all of the contradictions, fears, ego, and heart of the famous man. The Mountaintop is at its best when King gets to be a full and flawed human being.
Meanwhile LaVonn's performance as Camae is less successful. Her nature and story are eventually revealed, but it isn't always clear what Camae's role is supposed to be. The character ends up being too broad to be convincing in any of the different guises she takes on — though it does improve as the show goes on and we learn more about why she is here in the hotel room on this night and what her journey through life has been.
The production itself isn't without its missteps. The first one comes before the lights even dim. Alfred enters the stage a few minutes before the start of the show, quietly pacing the confines of the hotel-room set. The crowd hushes as the actor spends his time in quiet contemplation. The mood is ruined, however, by a rather intrusive announcement warning the crowd to silence their cell phones.
Even with these troubles — and they do threaten to derail the show just as it should be racing to the station — the production ends with a tremendous moment, as we hear part of King's final speech, delivered just a few hours before the events of the play. These simply staged moments remind us that no matter what happened to the man or the myth of Martin Luther King Jr., his powerful words will always speak for themselves.