Theater Review: THE MOUNTAINTOP (Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank)

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by Gregory Bernard on February 19, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


What if Dr. Martin Luther King was a down-to-earth, simple, vulnerable human being like the rest of us? What if human existence could be viewed from another dimension, one that allowed the viewer to weigh the pluses and minuses of the greater good versus personal choice, or the math of one human life versus the greater benefit? What if Dr. King had foreseen his untimely death and the fall of dominoes in the greater human fabric that his sliver of time would affect? What if perceptions we take for granted about our existence, cause and effect, even the nature of God, were reshuffled?

These and similar imponderables are fearlessly tackled by playwright Katori Hall in her thoughtful 2009 one-act, The Mountaintop, a fictional creation of the last evening of King’s life, directed by Gregg T. Daniels for the Garry Marshall Theatre. In an engrossing script that careens through unexpected twists and turns, Hall leads the viewer through what is at once believable and indeterminable, historical fact and fiction, and wholly plausible. On a rainy night in 1968 punctuated by thunderclaps, King is relaxing in his Memphis hotel room (a brilliant puzzle-box set design by Alex M. Calle) pondering the future of an unstable America while he awaits the return of his best friend with Pall Mall cigarettes. When he finds he is also out of coffee, he rings for room service and a hotel maid appears. She is awed by being in King’s presence as well as spirited and pretty, facts not lost on but not taken advantage of by King.

But then Hall’s script turns into a roller coaster of unexpected possibilities. King, well-defined in a sensitive and powerful portrayal by Gilbert Glenn Brown — who dazzles when reenacting King’s oratorical skills — is seen as a man instead of a legend, fraught with failings, graced with dignity and integrity, troubled by doubts and fears.

There is electricity between him and the maid Camae who, in a heartbreakingly powerhouse performance by Carolyn Ratteray, is just as human and vulnerable but not at all what she seems. Tables are turned in a way that have us emotionally appreciate not just King as a man with a mission — one that he may not have chosen but from which he does not shirk — but also the nature of chance and choice, unacceptable societal coercions, and other forces that are beyond our earthly comprehension. In the end, the play had me wrapped up by the suspense of watching a true story unfolding amid the awesomeness of possibilities for us all.

photos by Aaron Batzdorff

The Mountaintop
Garry Marshall Theatre
4252 W. Riverside Dr. in Burbank
ends on March 10, 2019
for tickets, call 818.955.8101 or visit Garry Marshall

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