'The Mountaintop': The Gethsemane of Martin Luther King

Patrese D. McClain and Bowman Wright in "The Mountaintop" at People's Light.

Theatergoers will see few plays like Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, now in a staggering production at People's Light. Like Shaw's Saint Joan or Brecht's Galileo, Hall's work takes a secular hero (in this case, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and transcends the tragedy of his death to canonize his legacy and inspire future action on his movement's behalf.

Set on April 3, 1968, The Mountaintop fictionally depicts the final night in the life of Rev. King (Bowman Wright). Restless, and working on an unfinished speech ("Why America is Going to Hell"), he orders coffee from room service to have it delivered by Camae (Patrese D. McClain), a flirtatious young maid who hides her true identity. Over the course of this 100-minute one-act, the pair flirt and argue (Panthers versus peace), debate the direction of the civil-rights movement, and portray the human cost of their shared struggle.

Steve H. Broadnax III's direction illuminates the parallels between King's era and today's political and racial climate. Every moment matters in this brief one-act, as Hall packs her play with the controversies regarding King, the battle over his legacy, and why we still debate 1960s politics today. Was he saint or sinner? Did he favor nonviolence and peaceful marches, or did he start to lean toward populist politics and social-justice-driven economic policies? Broadnax's staging grounds these early ideas and then seamlessly handles the transition from realism to the supernatural, aided by the superb production team at People's Light.

In Justin Ellington's sound design, thunder rattles the stage like a terrorist bomb, startling the audience and shaking King to the core. Tony Cisek's dingy Lorraine Motel room set entombs the pair inside its yellowing walls. Katherine Freer's projections and Joshua L. Schulman's lighting reveal the larger world outside, at once magnifying King's importance and putting it in scale.

Wright's performance humanizes the icon he portrays. His smile and wit disarm while he presents King as someone proud and still fighting, yet battered and worn down by the daily threats and torments. As a woman, McClain seduces with clever lines ("Nonsense out of a pretty girl's mouth ain't nonsense. It's poetry"). As someone wronged by injustice and attempting redemption, she blends righteousness with humility and tempers her fury with a charming southern drawl.

History may tell us what happened on April 4, 1968, yet this play has a powerful ending, and it's one I won't give away. In The Mountaintop, Hall has created a Gethsemane for the civil-rights movement, the kind of scene in any Passion play that fills the apostles with hope and encourages them to pick up the torch and carry on.

"The Mountaintop." Through Oct. 30 at People's Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets start at $38. Information: 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org