Up until about midway through The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s Olivier Award-winning play currently having its Washington premiere at Arena Stage, the show is a provocative, reasonably absorbing look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth. King (Bowman Wright) is a bundle of nerves and anxious energy—he chain smokes, checks his room for bugs, removes his shoes (grimacing at the smell), and converses in a meaningfully loaded and flirtatious way with the maid, Camae (Joaquina Kalukango), who brings him a coffee. The tension that seeps into the air from the play’s setting (the Lorraine Motel, Memphis) and the date (April 3, 1968) is enough to occupy the audience for 40 minutes or so while we wait for something to happen.
Then something does happen, and tonally it’s a shift so abrupt and jarring it’s as if a Busby Berkeley chorus had tap-danced its way into an Ibsen play. To say anything else would ruin the show altogether, so let’s leave it at this: Camae isn’t who she seems to be. If you’re the kind of person who welcomes theatrical bipolarity (and maybe even if you’re not), then the subsequent action might be compelling, heartbreaking, and zanily inventive; if you’d been enjoying the funny back-and-forth between the gloomy but priapic King and his loose-lipped chambermaid, it might all feel like too much of a leap to remain invested.
Directed by Robert O’Hara, a playwright himself who won a Helen Hayes Award for Antebellum when it premiered at Woolly Mammoth in 2009, The Mountaintop takes a fascinating premise—the reality of a very mortal American hero who seems to sense his days are numbered—and suffuses it with a wry sense of self-awareness, as if both characters are aware all along that they’re playing parts. There’s even a scene where Camae puts on King’s jacket and shoes and acts out her own impression of the Reverend Doctor, a not-so-subtle allusion to the playmaking going on.
Hall’s characters have funny lines, and the actors share an enjoyable chemistry. Camae is foul-mouthed, whip-smart, and easily provoked, and Kalukango plays her with a youthful charm, as if life hasn’t yet crushed her in the way it seems to have beaten down King. Coughing nonstop and prone to black moods and panic attacks, Wright’s King flirts with intensity and an air of desperation. The characters’ physical interaction is minimal—he grasps her hand while she lights his cigarette, she flashes some skin while digging cigarettes out of her bra and a flask from her stocking—but their minds frequently connect in a way that’s intriguing to watch.
Set and costume designer Clint Ramos stages the action in a motel room bisected (so the wood laminate is still showing) and placed on a turntable, so the audience sees the balcony first—King appears while the audience is being seated and frowns while muttering lines from his speech—and then the room’s interior, done in ’60s decor with twin beds with pink coverlets and heavy beige drapes. Heavy rain projected onto the back of the stage is remarkably effective, as are some other elements by Jeff Sugg.
Hall’s take on MLK is nuanced and sympathetic in a warts-and-all way. This is King as a real man, flawed in his passions and private moments but fiercely committed to changing minds through civil protest, and aware of the toll it takes on him. “Fear has become my companion,” he tells Camae at one point. “She is my lover. I know the touch of fear even more than I know my own wife.” For a man whose reputation lingers as a saintly public figure with very human private failings, it’s an oddly seductive way of describing his relationship with his own impending death. Wright delivers his strongest performance toward the end of the play, when King’s desperation reaches the surface, and his sense of grief is powerfully rendered. More of this emotional poignancy and less gimmickry might make this mountain a more majestic climb.
The Mountaintop is at Arena Stage through May 12. Running time is about an hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($40 and up) are available via Arena’s website.