With the rising popularity or reality TV shows, it’s not unreasonable to expect its invasive fingers to stretch across the footlights and onto the “real live” stage.
Such a reach is offered in “The Mountaintop,” which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Theatre.
For those who have no idea what’s ahead, the setting — The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. — and the date — April 3, 1968 — offer definite clues. Ditto the main (and only) protagonists — 1) a middle-age African American man and 2) a definitely much younger African American motel housekeeper.
The man is Martin Luther King. Uneasily preparing to spend the last evening of his life before journeying on. Quite accurate, although his tomorrow and the one fate has in store for him are quite different.
The maid, who is most particular about the pronunciation of her name, Camae, comes to deliver towels and stays for an evening of shared cigarettes, bad jokes, personal revelations and something quite different (if you have not seen the play, I won’t spoil that reveal; if you have, I don’t have to).
As the thunder rolls (quite loudly) and lightning flashes (quite impressively), King (Ben Little) and Camae (Kelly Morgan) await the lessening of the storm while creating one of their own inside room 308.
Of course, no one really knows what conversations, if any, took place in that ill-fated motel, so playwright Katori Hall had carte blanche in creating her own scenario.
You may agree that her suppositions have validity or you may not. Whichever you choose, it does nothing to lessen the uncomfortable pleasure of “listening at the keyhole.”
It takes nothing away from the acknowledgement that Rev. King was, after all, a man. If there is a doubt, the hole in his sock erases it immediately. Difficult to put on a pedestal a man with a big toe wriggling visibly.
Little returns to the SBCT stage with a bang in this 90-minute, no intermission production. He is by turns charming, afraid, belligerent, compassionate, insightful and, when the lights go out, ready to face what ever comes, even though he is sure of what if not of when. His portrayal would benefit from a little less bombast, especially towards the end. Moderation is equally moving.
Morgan enters obviously impressed with the occupant. That doesn’t prevent her from sharing cigarettes (both are trying to quit) in a “don’t let the grownups catch us” attitude or sewing on a button or bolstering up King’s sagging confidence or participating in a pillow fight or sharing a touch of “Irish cough syrup.” Her voice is consistently high and her sometimes too-speedy delivery results in a loss of dialogue.
Their common thread is fear. “Fear makes us human” King says, admitting later that fear is his best friend. Whatever happened — or did not — in that Memphis motel room, (maybe he just got a good night’s sleep) Hall’s conjecture is only one imaginative offering.
The truth is that we will never know, but as presented by Little and Morgan, this view from this “Mountaintop” makes for a very interesting evening.
Fred Kiefer’s set — of necessity — couldn’t be drearier with special applause for the very realistic thunder and lightning, all under the direction of Shirley Gordon.
“THE MOUNTAINTOP” plays through Sunday in the SBCT Wilson Theatre. For show times and reservations call (574) 234-1112 between 3 and 6 p.m.