Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: 'The Mountaintop'

The lack of stagecraft in this production deprives the play of its full power., says critic Jim Rutter.

Review: ‘The Mountaintop’


By Jim Rutter


Katori Hall set her play “The Mountaintop” in Room 306 of Memphis’ Lorraine Hotel on April 3, 1968 — the night before Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s assassination on balcony outside that room. Though King’s legacy lives on, the world will always wonder what he could have achieved had he not been murdered at 39.

Philadelphia Theatre Company’s current pared-down production encourages a similar counterfactual wondering. Hall imagines a conversation between King (Sekou Laidlow) and Camae, a new motel maid (Amirah Vann). Over the course of 90 minutes, the two discuss social justice (Panthers vs. peace), race relations (“What to do with the white man?”) and the future of the civil rights movement. 

They flirt, drink, and chain smoke, their sharp dialogue sizzles and Hall’s touching portrait flatters in its refusal to deify King. Both actors, directed by Patricia McGregor, deliver superb performances; Vann deserves choreography credit for articulating nearly every line with a foot pivot, flick of a wrist, or saucy wink.

But because of a continuing strike by Philadelphia Theatre Company stagehands, the production is missing much of the vital stagecraft required by Hall’s script.

At one point, the atmosphere should shift in an instant from the stark realism of Matt Saunders’ set to a vivid spiritual landscape, but the potent sound, lighting and projections that should accompany the shift instead are spoken as stage directions by actress Cathy Simpson from the front of the stage.

At Saturday's press opening, flowers should have bloomed through the floor, fingers should have grasped through the motel-room door, and lightning and thunder should have raged across the set as harbingers of the next day’s doom. In their place, words — anemic, colorless words — let us know what we would have seen in a fully realized production. 

Because of this absence of staging, we in Philadelphia won’t know all the power that lies within “The Mountaintop.” For the sake of its arts-loving audiences, let’s hope for a resolution to the standoff before PTC mounts its next production, Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar,” in March. 


Through Feb. 17 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. Tickets: $46. 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org. 

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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