The Mountaintop (Review)

MLK’s last night makes for a moving production at ETC

Gavin Lawrence and Torie Wiggins
Gavin Lawrence and Torie Wiggins

Critic's Pick

In the nearly half-century since the passing of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he has been increasingly characterized as saintly. This profound respect is surely warranted, but it’s a certainty he had flaws and weaknesses as well as doubts about his mission and what it meant. Katori Hall’s award-winning 2011 play, The Mountaintop, offers a thoroughly human portrait of King in its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre.

It’s the night before the tragic 1968 assassination in Memphis. King (Gavin Lawrence) returns to his room at the Lorraine Hotel in a downpour — Brian c. Mehring’s scenic design replicates the modest hotel in realistic detail, and the weather outside the door and through the balcony window is realistically recreated. It’s late, and King is weary from delivering a powerful and inspirational speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at the Mason Temple. He’s hoping for cigarettes and some coffee so he can prepare for the next day’s march to support sanitation workers. He needs to refine another speech about “Why America is Going to Hell.”

Coffee and cigarettes arrive via a sassy maid, Camae (Tori Wiggins). Conversation ensues, ranging from joshing and flirting to profound philosophical and moral debate. Camae seems to be a smart but common woman. The playwright builds on this foundation then transforms her in an imaginative, indeed magical, way to explore issues King might have wrestled with during his final hours. By steadily building emotion and carefully revealing a fanciful but convincing set of circumstances, director D. Lynn Meyers’ production delivers audiences to a veritable “mountaintop” of revelation and understanding.

While perhaps smaller in stature than King, Lawrence resembles him, and he captures many of his familiar gestures, patterns of speech and especially his passion and demeanor. Wiggins looks the part of an efficient, thoughtful maid, but she gathers strength and depth as the story unfolds, playing an unexpected role in helping this great man understand what his life has meant and will mean in the future. The dynamic between these actors is electric. ETC has offered a powerful season; The Mountaintop might be remembered as its best production. Audiences will be deeply moved by this imaginative recreation of a moment in history and the very real man who changed America.

THE MOUNTAINTOP, presented Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through April 6.

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