Rarely does a play satisfactorily deliver both humor and meaning. Perseverance Theatre's production of "The Mountaintop," now onstage at the Sydney Laurence Theatre, succeeds on both levels.
Katori Hall's two-person drama imagines the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. King (Michael Flood) is alone in a motel room, waiting for his associate, Ralph Abernathy, to deliver a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and is working on a speech tentatively titled "Why America Is Going to Hell." A maid, Camae (Liz Morgan), brings him coffee and just happens to have Pall Malls. And a hip flask. Over smokes and whiskey, they discuss civil rights, theology, sin, sorrow and the weight of history for the next hour and a half.
It took a deft hand to portray the iconic King as a flesh-and-blood human being, fired up but haunted by doubts, courageous in his convictions but scared of thunder, committed to a sacred cause yet possessed of the same earthly desires as everyone else, too modest to give out autographs like some sort of celebrity but bearing a strong streak of vanity. He wonders whether shaving his mustache will make him look younger. When Camae says her name sounds good coming out of his mouth, he immediately chirps proudly, "A lot of things do."
Camae -- pronounced like "Care-may" -- is something of his reflection in an alternative incarnation. She's eloquent but mouthy, sensitive yet crude, blatantly sexual yet resistive to King's blandishments, skeptical about nonviolence and instead sympathetic to the Black Power ideology of Malcolm X, whom King detests, though he admits they never actually had a discussion.
It becomes clear that she is no ordinary "old maid." She knows things that make King suspicious. Yet to this stranger he unburdens his troubles, his concerns over the war in Vietnam, the increasing violence and chaos in the civil rights movement, the improbably ambitious Poor People's Campaign, his frequent absences from his family, his battle with the possibility of being killed any day.
"Fear is my constant companion," he says. "My lover."
From the beginning Hall foreshadows what we know from history, that King will be shot the next day as he stands on the balcony of that very motel room. Early on, he denounces plans by the mayor of Memphis to ban a march; that'll happen "over my dead body," he snaps, and the listener feels a shock realizing that's exactly how it will happen. When he describes his exhaustion from his labors, Camae quips, "Civil rights will kill you before those Pall Malls do."
But the maid's fate, function and identity are uncertain for at least half the show. Is she a specter from the beyond or an operative from the FBI, sent to trip him up? Or just, as she says, a "mule" with a checkered past on the first day of the job that's fallen to her simply because "I'm better at cleaning up other folks' messes than my own."
King's place in our national story is the preponderant theme of the play, a theme that could easily become merely preachy. At its most profound level, the message is a restatement of King's quest to find some way to love those who cannot love us back, a message that may defy most sermons -- and maybe theater.
The writing, however, is full of funny lines as King jokes with the pretty maid and Camae teases one epiphany after another out of him with comic comebacks. After he's announced some of his plans and dreams, she says, "Like a lot of men, you ain't going to be able to finish what you started."
The opening night audience repeatedly laughed at the funny parts. But they left silently, meditatively.
New York-based Morgan and Flood, whose credits include a number of Shakespearean roles, turned in excellent performances. Delivery, body language and accents were all on target. The script aside, it was a great pleasure to watch such professionals excel at their craft. Lydia Fort of San Diego directed the production, which was previously seen in Juneau.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 22
Where: Sydney Laurence Theatre
?Tickets: $34.75 at centertix.net or 263-ARTS