By John Quinn
Aristotle, great biologist but so-so drama critic, credits Greek tragedian Aeschylus with adding a second character to drama – making dialogues possible. In “The Mountaintop,” winner of Britain’s Olivier Award for Best Play in 2010, Katori Hall adds a second character to bring a dramatic tension to one of the great American tragedies, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This taut fantasy is the latest offering from the Performance Network Theatre in Ann Arbor.
Fantasy, rather than fiction, is the operative word here, although the history is all too real. As his mission had expanded from civil rights to social justice, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tenn. in support of a sanitation workers’ strike. He checked into room 306 at the Lorraine Motel the evening of April 3, 1968 and was shot on the balcony the following evening at 6:01 p.m.
As Hall imagines it, a hoarse and weary King returns to his motel in the middle of an ominous thunderstorm. He has just delivered the inspirational speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” at Mason Temple, and is preparing a follow-up for the next day – a speech he’ll never deliver. He’s interrupted by Camae, a young and very wet chambermaid; it’s her first day on the job. Camae hangs around. Bummed cigarettes and a couple of shots of whiskey lead to some mild flirtation, as the feisty maid forces the preacher to review his accomplishments and contemplate his legacy. But Dr. King is troubled: The mysterious Camae knows far more about him than a stranger should.
Hall describes her intent as follows: “I want people to see that this extraordinary man – who is actually quite ordinary – achieved something so great that he actually created a fundamental shift in how we, as a people, interact with each other.” And, indeed her King is an embodiment of the Age of Reason. Man, though imperfect, accomplishes marvelous things when he strives for perfection. The playwright, however, does not give much solid material with which to work. “The Mountaintop” depends on believable characters and that, thankfully, is where director Carla Milarch and her talented cast ride to the rescue.
Performed in one act, “The Mountaintop” evolves from its deathly-dull first scene into a barreling freight train at its conclusion. Milarch evens out the fits and starts along the way. Brian Marable does not imitate Martin Luther King, and thereby creates a solid, real character. In a final speech we hear the fiery skills that marked the career of, arguably, the greatest orator of the 20th century, but Marable has made it all his own.
Carollette Phillips turns out Camae as a sassy firebrand, and Katori Hall has given her some of the funniest lines. Yes, funny lines; “The Mountaintop” leavens its tragedy with humor, a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. But beyond the one-liners, the fundamental humor lies in the contrasting characters Marable and Phillips have developed.
Stage managers get no respect. When everything goes right, they’re forgotten; when something goes wrong they get the blame. There’s a lot that could go wrong in this production, and the fact it runs like a Rolex is due to Michelle Bryan. And a lot of what could go wrong is the “fault” of scenic and media designer Justin Lang, whose somewhat scruffy motel set transfigures into a multimedia extravaganza. The effect is extraordinary.
Ultimately, “The Mountaintop” inspires; through tragedy, we are “renewed and restored.” Aristotle calls it “catharsis.” Given the quality of the Performance Network production, maybe the old boy knew his stuff, after all.
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through June 2. 90 minutes. $27-41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org