Theater Review: 'The Mountaintop,' Weston Playhouse | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'The Mountaintop,' Weston Playhouse

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Neil Dawson and Maechi Aharanwa - COURTESY OF HUBERT SCHRIEBL
  • Courtesy Of Hubert Schriebl
  • Neil Dawson and Maechi Aharanwa

The setting of Katori Hall's 2009 play The Mountaintop tells much of the story on its own. It's April 3, 1968, in a modest room at the Lorraine Motel. The pleated peach curtains cover windows that look out on a balcony. It's raining, and tomorrow the room's occupant, Martin Luther King Jr., will be assassinated. The briefcase on the bed holds the scraps of a speech that he can't quite pull together on the last night of his life.

King has come back to the room after a long day. His voice is strained from the speech he gave tonight, the one we now call "The Mountaintop." Before making a call, he checks the phone for bugs, trying to stay a step ahead of FBI surveillance. Though his concerns are unique, he's as weary as any business traveler.

Every moment of the play balances on the audience knowing what will happen the next day. In the elegant Weston Playhouse production, the set itself assumes the frozen-in-time quality of a museum exhibit. The meticulously re-created motel room is bounded by a bezeled frame complete with a brass plaque. The 1960s lamps and bedspreads become elegiac artifacts.

Even as the set compels the viewer to contemplate history, the play's action focuses on the simple, casual details of life on the road. King has forgotten to pack his toothbrush. It's too late for room service, but he can order coffee. The sanitation workers of Memphis need support for their strike, and King needs a fresh pack of cigarettes.

The young maid Camae brings him coffee and a newspaper, and the two mix flirtation with small talk. At first, King's penchant for infidelity seems to be driving the plot, but the conversation and connection between the two gracefully unfold into a broad reflection on King's life and work — and on the fears he feels.

It's Camae's first day on the job, and initially she's in awe of King and giddy about meeting the man she's seen on TV. She is not tongue-tied for long, however. She speaks impulsively, often apologizing for swearing in front of the preacher. Bold enough to make fun of his smelly feet and question his methods, she thinks that Malcolm X may have better tactics.

Making cigarettes and whiskey appear from her pockets, Camae brazenly spars with King. It's clear she is no ordinary maid. Hearing Camae say that marches are not enough gives King a chance to draw back and see a freeze-frame of his life's work.

The play flips the stature of the characters: It is Camae who is larger than life, while King is an ordinary business traveler. Hall emphasizes King's foibles. He has a vain moment when contemplating his mustache in the mirror; he smokes too much and drinks too easily; he lies to his wife. Above all, he is mortal. Camae's full role in the story should be left for each viewer to discover.

The script is taut, but the performers give this production its momentum. Neil Dawson, as King, and Maechi Aharanwa, as Camae, proceed through different connections, between a great man and an admirer, a seducer and a woman who can fend for herself, and, finally, two people brave enough to challenge each other. Together, they reveal King's legacy by presenting him as a man, not a myth.

Dawson sets King stalking through the motel room muttering to himself about his next speech. He shows King's energy and swagger — he'll conquer this one way or another — then slumps down to indulge his doubts. With physical contrasts, Dawson gives King a pesky cough to offset a grand presence and lets him startle at a thunderclap and then laugh off Camae's cutting comments.

To position Camae at a cultural distance from King, Aharanwa uses an oversize Southern accent, taking her time to drawl out "Dr. Kang." She's childlike and sparkling with energy as the play begins, but soon she takes on a mesmerizing power. The performance has its too-cute moments, but Aharanwa is an actor you can't take your eyes off, yielding surprise after surprise.

The performers connect, and the scenes sing. Director Raz Golden keeps the characters pushing against each other in constant friction. The tension is good-natured, but the stakes for King are always profound. The blandness of the motel room is juxtaposed with the cataclysm that awaits King, and the country, the next day.

The script plays with magical elements, and the creative team manifests them in subtle yet powerful ways. Sound designer Carsen Joenk and lighting designer Austin Boyle create a palpable rainy night, making the mood in the room both foreboding and commonplace. When the thunderstorm kicks up, it's vividly real yet endowed with mystical power.

Scenic designer Frank Oliva transports the audience to 1968 with period furnishings and sensitive use of color and materials. His shadow box frame is a brilliant device.

For the finale, when King issues a stirring call to action, Golden moves Camae and King literally beyond the frame bounding the motel room and toward the audience. The setting is the play, holding all its meaning. The audience's foreknowledge creates the poignancy; the characters can only stir up abstractions about King's noble and incomplete mission.

Theater isn't a great vehicle for nonrepresentational ideas. When Hall uses mysticism to keep the story going, the ploy is a humorous release, but it's also an opening for viewers to distance themselves from the drama. This production's performances moderate that risk, but it remains.

Making King an ordinary, troubled man humanizes him. Camae is a companion both playful and powerful. "I thought you was gone be perfect," Camae tells King. "Well, you ain't, but then you are." Bringing him down to Earth is how the play elevates him. As Camae helps this plain man see that death is not failure, she shows us all that hope remains.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Promised Land"

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