Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Unfortunately, great stories do not always make great theater, and Mountain is more like an excellent history lecture than a dramatic performance. The Bristol Riverside Theater production is at its best when Keith Baker (William O. Douglas) tells tales about the Justice's adventures around the world, making stirring pronouncements about the nature of man and the role of law in democratic society. Baker gives those speeches emotional weight and avoids corny theatricality. Conversely, the scenes in which famous cases are argued before the Court and discussed among the justices fall flat. That's too bad, because they are actually riveting cases.
Mountain includes not only the highlights of the indomitable Justice's work on the Supreme Court, but also his early career, difficult childhood, dramatic personal life (Douglas was married four times), and tragic end of life decline. Although it includes a wealth of information, author Douglas Scott's script has little suspense or excitement to capture the imagination of his audience. The structure of the play is uniquetraveling through time from Douglas' old age to his youth in the first act and then back from youth to old age in the second actbut it dissipates any sense of tension inherent in the story and causes confusion.
All of the other charactersand there are dozensare played by just two actors. Kenneth Boys (FDR, Richard Nixon, Amir Ahmadi, Lois Brandeis, and others) gives a high-energy performance in his multitude of roles, instantly creating some distinct and memorable characters, like an old man in Tehran and Douglas' estranged son. Despite his best effort, Boys cannot make all of his roles unique and identifiable. Several characters blend together and there are some confusing scenes where we are left to wonder with whom Douglas is speaking. The same problem detracts from Sandy York's (Julia Fisk Douglas, Mildred Riddle Douglas, Mercedes Davidson Douglas, and others) admirable performance. York takes on a variety or accents and attitudes to portray all of the women in Douglas' life, but there are just too many for her differentiate all of them effectively. A simple white scarf makes York's character easily identifiable in the scenes in which she plays Mercedes Davidson Douglas. The use of a few additional simple props or costumes (or any number of other devices) would make the character changes much easier to follow.
The production has a modern minimalist feel that does nothing to brighten up the stage or story. Linda Bee Stockton's modern costumes are drab and in some cases ill fitting; Douglas' judicial robes are too short and so tight they might be impossible to button closed. The set is simply a series of white panels, platforms and stairs. Images projected onto the sparse set create the important locations and the projection design of Caite Hevner Kemp along with the lighting design of Joe Doran effectively render those places for the audience. In the scenes without those projections and lighting effects the set seems empty.
Despite its flaws, director Susan D. Atkinson's Mountain is an extremely interesting and thought-provoking production. It is also a genuinely educational and occasionally inspiring journey.
Bristol Riverside Theater's Mountain: The Journey of Justice Douglas runs through November 22, 2015, at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Tickets are available at the box office, by phone at 215-785-0100 or online at brtstage.org.