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Theater Review: Two Strangers, One Motel Room: Captivating "Mountaintop" In Hartford

HARTFORD — Winner of England’s 2010 Oliver Award, and a Broadway success when it starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is a surrealistic fantasy that incorporates real historic events and oratory, even as it mingles comic riffs with deeply tragic overtones and implications. The title comes from the Reverend Martin Luther King’s final speech on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, in which, apparently foreseeing his own death, the 39-year old preacher and moral leader of a generation declaimed: 

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

With the booming refrain of that speech heard in the background, it is close to midnight when, Abernathy and his other associates having gone home to bed, an exhausted King stumbles into Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. Hungry and tired, he telephones for room service. The motel no longer offers room service, an anonymous desk clerk informs him, but he promises to send up some coffee.

It arrives almost immediately, delivered by an attractive young woman in a yellow nylon maid’s uniform, with a streetwise attitude. Her name is Camae, she tells him, and it’s her first day on the job. She doesn’t want to mess up. But clearly, she has an agenda of her own…

As a deafening thunderstorm rages outside, the sassy and flirtatious Camae is attentive to King’s frayed nerves, producing from her apron pocket the Pall Mall cigarettes he craves, and offering a spike of whiskey to the coffee. When she joins him in a sociable smoke, King, whose extramarital dalliances were well documented and publicized by J. Edgar Hoover, is both attracted and suspicious.

“Is this a set-up? Who hired you?” he demands, frantically searching the room for hidden bugs and cameras, until he sinks on the bed in a spasm of breathlessness, as a now alarmed Camae tries to calm him down.

Who sent her, and for what purpose, is the fantastic element of the play, currently being staged at TheaterWorks. It is also the source of both the comic as well as the deeply serious themes in the work, which continues until May 5. Reluctantly, Camae admits to being a rookie angel, sent to collect and escort King home to Heaven, because it is time for him to die.

In classic folk tale form, King argues that he isn’t ready. Channeling excerpts from his other speeches, he proclaims his dreams of ending war, eliminating poverty, and bringing justice to all. There is so much more work to be done, he pleads, begging her to intercede for him, to gain him more time to carry out his plans. Although she is skeptical, Camae ultimately agrees to try, leading to one of the comic episodes — a very long distance twenty digit phone call to God…

But we all know what happened the next day.

Because of the constant abuse he suffered from white authorities as well as bigoted mobs, and the myriad death threats hurled at him, Martin Luther King Jr lived in a state of perpetual fear. Every time he left his family to go on the road to speak, he expected that day might be his last. Nevertheless, he resolved to keep on with his mission of non-violent leadership, exhorting America to move toward social justice.

Thus his long, lonely night in the Lorraine Motel could well be depicted as a modern Gethsemane, and Ms Hall’s play can be seen as a kind of folk art variant on the Biblical story of Jesus in the garden before the Last Supper. He will die, but after his death a nation will be transformed, and at least some of his dream will be realized.

On stage for 95 minutes straight, with no intermission, Jamil A.C. Mangan does a powerful job in capturing Dr King. His voice, his presence, and his rhetorical preacher’s style are all there, along with the weariness revealed in the privacy of his room.

But I was even more taken with Courtney Thomas as the beautiful young newly fledged angel, a tough-talking, one-time thief and sinner, who is doing the best she can in a job she was never trained for.

Under Rob Ruggiero’s skillful direction, using Evan Adamson’s realistic set and David Gallo’s media and Michael Miceli’s sound design, the play triggers memories and brings history to life, even as it captivates the audience with unexpected moments.

(Performances continue until May 5, Tuesday through Saturday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Call 860-527-7838 or visit TheaterWorksHartford.org for full ticket and special performance details.)

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