Theater review: In King’s world, via ‘The Mountaintop’

Scott Suchman - Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Joaquina Kalukango as Camae in Arena Stage’s production of “The Mountaintop.”

He smokes. He cusses. He drinks. He comes on to a woman who isn’t his wife. But he also speaks in the inspirational voice of a Gandhi-esque leader who forced America to search its conscience over racial inequality and poverty. And then he cusses and smokes some more.

“I’m just a man!” implores the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” and it’s a statement that could serve as the subtitle of this heartfelt if wildly manipulative play, having its Washington premiere at Arena Stage. The formula for saints onstage or in film mandates instruction in how much they are like you and me — although few martyrs spell out that intention quite so blatantly as Hall’s King.

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Set on the eve of King’s assassination in April 1968 outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, “The Mountaintop” is informed by both the eternal sadness over the civil rights pioneer’s early death (at 39) and the enduring appreciation of his passion. So go ahead, have a tissue ready for the climactic moment when King apprehends that the work of his movement will have to go on without him, and he pleads with the universe for a fleeting glimpse of what the world beyond the spring of 1968 will look like.

How could that not be an imagined instant you’d want to preserve in drama? A clairvoyant minute seems the smallest and grandest of parting gifts to bestow on a man for whom no word carried more weight than “dream.” For that, you must commend Hall’s humane inclination, even though the manner in which she chooses to deliver it is such a cliche from sappier forms of drama that it diminishes all on the Kreeger stage that follows.

It will be left to you to discover the play-altering plot twist that turns an absorbing naturalistic encounter into a hokier episode of “The Twilight Zone.” (Let’s erase from our minds the arch phone call Camae puts through, into the Everlasting.) This is a shame, because there is a fair amount to recommend in this “Mountaintop,” starting with the down-to-earth portrayal of King by Bowman Wright, and with Joaquina Kalukango’s secure turn as Camae, the housekeeper who arrives at Room 306 with coffee and fresh towels and makes herself at home to flirt with, cajole, lecture, entertain and console the itchy King, in town to lead an injunction-defying rally of sanitation workers.

Director Robert O’Hara — whose own plays “Antebellum” and “Bootycandy” were premiered by Woolly Mammoth Theatre — proves a solid guide for Wright and Kalukango. Arena’s “Mountaintop,” a co-production with Houston’s Alley Theatre, is a more satisfactorily assembled version of the play than the starrier Broadway incarnation that featured a miscast Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett’s Camae showboating too obviously.

On Clint Ramos’s motel set — authentically tacky down to the shabby pink bedspreads, and placed on a turntable to allow for scenes inside and out of the room — King and Camae talk away on King’s last night on Earth. While the thunder that cracked regularly during director Kenny Leon’s Broadway production put audiences more effectively on edge, the more youthful energy of Kalukango and Wright is better matched than that of Jackson and Bassett. You get a more tragic sense now, of a man cut down in his prime. And in the heat between Arena’s actors, King’s ladies’-man reputation emerges as a more credible factor. If any tantalizing mystery exists in “The Mountaintop,” it’s in whether their conversation is a kind of foreplay.

Hall has a good ear for banter and an eye for the telling detail, as when Wright’s King reaches for the phone, not to make a call but to check for bugs. It’s when she reaches for sweeping effect that the play feels disappointingly minor. The projections devised by Jeff Sugg are technically impressive, the most complicated of them a stirringly composed digital march through contemporary American history.

The playwright by no means offers a sanitized portrait here, though it is a generous and forgiving one; she informs us at one point that King’s admirers extend far beyond the mortal realm. With the trimming of naughty words and other manifestations of King’s earthy proclivities, in fact, “The Mountaintop” might prove suitable for mounting at the site of his national memorial. It might even feel worthier at the granite knees of his likeness than it does in a theater.

The Mountaintop

by Katori Hall. Directed by Robert O’Hara. Set and costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound and music, Lindsay Jones; projections, Jeff Sugg. About 95 minutes. Through May 12 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.

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