Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Thus opens Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, a play that defies being slotted into any one category. Full of comedy, drama, suspense, and historical recounting (with a bit of possible hot romance thrown in on the side), much happens in its short but packed ninety minutes. Since opening in London in 2009 and soon winning an Olivier Best New Play Award, it has skyrocketed to become one of the most-produced plays across America (including an acclaimed 2013 curtain-rising at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley). Now, Pear Theatre brings to its intimate setting this powerful, fictional account of Martin Luther King's last night in a soaring production, bringing its audience within arm's length of one of the greatest men ever to walk this earth as he comes face-to-face with his limitations, his temptations, and his fears.
Michael Wayne Rice bears such a haunting resemblance to the man we now know from grainy film clips, grand statues, and US Forever Stamps that it is almost breathtaking when he first walks through the motel door. His movements are of a man ever as human as any of us, who is exhausted yet full of urgency to complete an impossible task, of a man so worried about his own safety that sudden thunder blasts lead him to check to be sure a bullet has not pierced his heart, and of a man who (though devoted to his beloved Cory) can still be lured into serious flirting in hopes of some late-night relief from a young woman. But Mr. Rice also brings to Dr. King a dignity and larger than life presence that sometimes make his average height almost gigantic with a sense of surety and intensity of purpose.
Slumping shoulders and tired limp suddenly transform into inflated chest and quickened steps across the small room with arms raised as he fires off, "How can you fight a war in Vietnam and not fight the war on our streets?" And when he begins preaching within these flimsy walls how "poor people matter," the oh-so-familiar emphasis of both beginning and ending consonants and the rising and falling sing-song melody of the deep voice make it easy to believe that Michael Wayne Rice is, at least for this moment, the real Dr. King right before our very eyes.
But the real life and spark of Ms. Hall's play enters through the door as first-day motel maid Carrie Mae (shortened to Camae), dripping from the rain with coffee, paper, and the bravado to spar, tease, and even flirt with this much older man, one "I saw on the TV at Woolworth's." Nathalie Autumn Bennett is exceptional in every regard as the ever moving, jumping, flopping-about Camae. She is just as likely to begin ranting about her disregard of God as she is to suddenly blurt in jet-stream speed a series of choice 4-letter words (followed by hilarious begging of Preacher King's forgiveness while dancing in holy-roller style or flailing on the floor in pretend tears). She also has no compunction in telling this national icon that "Walkin' will only get us so far ... We gotta do somethin' else" or eerily warning him, "Civil rights will kill ya before those Pall Malls will." With a voice that can squeal in octaves high above the treble staff, that can show cunning and coy with an edge of daring sultriness, while also having a mother's sympathy when the trouble Doctor collapses in panicked loss of breath, Ms. Bennett delivers a performance delicious to watch.
From this small stage comes an evening in many ways most unexpected and totally worthy of venues much grander and larger. Adding to the evening's admiration is the stage design by Kua-Hao Lo and the set construction by Norm Beamer. Together they have recreated a room many of us so well remember by visits to the now National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, and they have cleverly added some special effects that play a huge and surprising part in the play's later minutes. John Beamer has created a video montage whose showing at the play's end brings the evening's messages and emotions to new and lasting heights. Arriving early at the theatre is a plus in order to enjoy Will Price's mixture of Civil Rights and '60s songs while his thunderstorm effects are amazingly realistic and essential to the evening's story. Patricia Tyler has provided costumes and props that clearly and accurately place the setting in 1968 Memphis. Finally, the sensitive ebb and flow of pace, the emotional roller coaster ride that never goes too high or low, and both the freedom and the containment clearly given to the two principal actors is due to the expert direction of Ray Renati, to whom maybe the most credit for such a successful evening should go.
Whether or not someone has previously seen The Mountaintop, Pear Theatre's production is the perfect way to honor Dr. King and his legacy as we celebrate his birthday season this month. This is a production not to be missed. How can any of us not be inspired as we leave with Dr. King's parting words ringing in our ears as so eloquently imparted by Mr. Rice:
The Pear Theatre continues The Mountaintop through January 31, 2016, at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.