Review: Trinity Rep's 'The Mountaintop' A Rough Ascent In Spite Of Top-Notch Talent

Jan 19, 2017

On Martin Luther King Day Trinity Rep opened “The Mountaintop,”  a play that salutes Dr. King. Rhode Island Public Radio's Bill Gale says the show works, to an extent, at least.

It's a grand idea, this work about Martin Luther King's last night on this earth. What was he feeling like? What were his plans, his hopes? Why was he not protected better? Why did we have to lose him?

All good questions. A fine idea for a piece of art. But “The Mountaintop” does not stop there. Written in 2009 by Katori Hall, who was then in her 20s, this 90 minute or so work roars from its premise into fantasia-land. It becomes not so much a view of Dr. King, but an exercise in seeing just how dizzy, just how watch-me-with-all-my-talent the playwright can muster.

The result is a play that's half good, half over-baked. In other words it, unfortunately, goes off the track it has set for itself. This view of a great American has its good points but it needs governing. Less fantasia and more grounding.

Here's the story line, at the beginning, at least. We find Martin Luther King alone in a pretty beat-up motel in Memphis. Rain pours. Thunder is breathtaking. It's late at night. The colleague who has been set out to find some cigarettes has disappeared. King calls for coffee to be sent up. Room service is closed, he's told.

“Do you know who I am,” he demands of the manager.

Soon, arrives a shapely, sexy, smart-as-a-whip young lady complete not only with the coffee but a couple of packs of Pall Malls not to mention a mind as quick and sure as can be. King is, ahh, let's say, impressed. The two fight and flirt, argue and agree. And disagree, again.

King is shown to be a man worn down by his struggles, by his dreams. He's just 39 but a loud clap of thunder can put him in into a fearful collapse. He's a man of greatness worn down by his efforts, by his enemies.

Now, here, is where I'm going to depart from the plot. “The Mountaintop” slowly, surely becomes a fuselage of fantasy. She isn't what she seems. She's greater, really, but quite fantastically foolish, too. The play, unfortunately, becomes silly at times, its premise runs off the road, the attention taken from Martin Luther King to someplace fearful and foul.

Fortunately, there's little problem with the cast. Mia Ellis, quickly becoming a leading lady at Trinity Rep, gallops into her wild-eyed role with a great measure of power and humor. One moment she's a Southern black woman, feisty and fast, and then, suddenly, she's something more, something serious. It's excellent on-stage work.

Trinity veteran Joe Wilson Jr. gives us a Dr. King who is at once rough and tough and fearful and tired. One moment he is charging ahead, demanding better treatment for his people, his country. Then, the actor, switches into a dud who's trying to decide if he should shave off his mustache. Oh, what should I do, he asks.

But by then “The Mountaintop” has pretty much collapsed. Its fusillade of fervor, its oblique view of a most serious event wears quite thin, doesn't live up to its premise. It's a shame. A good start, run aground.

“The Mountaintop” continues at Trinity Rep through February 12th.  Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.