The Mountaintop fictionally recalls Martin Luther King Jr’s final night, playing at Toronto’s Aki Studio Theatre
Settling in at Daniels Spectrum, Aki Studio Theatre for Obsidian Theatre’s production of The Mountaintop, I found myself completely whisked away by the set and pre-show soundscape. Late sixties pop tunes play and rain outside a window throws eerie patterns on the wall of a darkened and dismal motel room. Segments of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech weave in and out. It is both comforting and ominous, this opening atmosphere crafted by Judith Bowden (set), Kevin Lamotte (lighting) and Freddy Gabrsek (sound).
Katori Hall’s play is a fictionalized account of King’s last evening in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. With the storm raging outside, King’s frequent coughing fits, and our own knowledge of what will happen less than a day later, there is a feeling of dread that never really lifts, even when the characters are engaged in lighthearted banter.
And who are the characters? Well, there is King (of course) and his companion for the evening: an attractive, sassy and mysterious maid named Camae. She offers him cigarettes and whiskey, and they get to talking.
Kevin Hanchard and Alana Hibbert have great chemistry. That sounds trite, but it’s meant as a simple statement of appreciation. There is alchemy at work here: the air is charged with heated expectation and cool tension—it crackles—as they flirt, argue and console each other. Both are charismatic, and it’s a pleasure to watch and listen to them. Their body language and cadences seem weighty and meaningful.
For the first half of the play, everything is naturalistic. Camae draws out the doubtful and damaged man beneath the iconic persona. He reveals his insecurities and desires, but then… we discover who Camae really is! The play then takes off on a flight of fancy. Naturalism gives way to some truly spell-binding magic realism. Even in my front-row seat, I was impressed by some very well-executed effects—some nightmarish, some delightful.
While I was thoroughly surprised by this revelation, I began to loose interest as the play dragged on, expecting it to be a whimsical dream from which he would wake. Although it’s somewhat amusing to hear King’s side of a telephone conversation with God, it went on longer than necessary. In fact, a lot of the tension was lost once I grew accustomed to the fantastical and absurd elements.
So, yes, my mind did wander a bit towards during the final third. There are two highly poetic monologues at the end that were far longer than they needed to be. The projected visuals (by Andrew Smith) that accompany these passages are exceptionally well-integrated and they are, at first, quite compelling, but they lost steam as I figured out the endgame long before it’s revealed.
I’m not sure that this reveals much about the man behind the icon. A lot of the tension came from knowing who he is and what is about to happen to him. I wonder what an audience oblivious to King’s legacy would make of this particular story… and is that even relevant?
It is, for the most part, very entertaining. The performances are top notch. Philip Akin’s direction elegantly blends the fantastical and realistic, not only with regards to the storyline, but also the performances. These characters and their world are both gritty and larger than life and it never becomes a contradiction.
- The Mountaintop plays at the Daniels Spectrum, Aki Studio Theatre (585 Dundas St. East) until October 19.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8PM, with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2PM
- Tickets are $15 to $35, with PWYC on Tuesdays.
- Tickets can be purchased by calling 416-531-1402 or online
Photo of Alana Hibbert and Kevin Hanchard by David Cooper