Review: ‘The Mountaintop’

By Jim Rutter

FOR THE INQUIRER

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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