A Look At Something We Will Never Know

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 Mountaintop  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe 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.

The Mountaintop South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreMorgan 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.

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Chilling Tales Shared In 'The Weir'

If you’re the type who likes their chill factor raised via slasher films or undead supernatural TV shows, the latest South Bend Civic Theatre production — “The Weir”— won’t seem overly frightening.

What the award-winning work by Irish playwright Connor McPerson will do is provide you with an evening of solid performances and frequently familiar characters whose easy banter reveals a universal connection.

Under the direction of Scott Jackson (one of the Michiana areas’s best!), “The Weir” focuses on the interaction of two regulars, one returnee, a newcomer and the bartender in a pub in northwest Ireland. Named for the low dam that regulates water level controlling the small town’s electricity, The Weir also serves as a safe haven for the men of the village.

The Weir South Bend (JN) Civic TheatreGathered in its familiar confines are the owner, Brendan (Marlon D. Deleon); Jack (Bill Svelmoe), a mechanic and owner of the local garage, and Jim (Ed Walin), another regular who cares for his elderly mother. They are joined by Finbar (Driscoll), a prosperous real estate broker who has just rented a house to Valerie (Dorea Britton), a young woman from Dublin.  

Over a pint (or more), they share the events of their day and, as Jack puts it, “Bullshit about all and nothing.” Tales of local events and residents somehow slip into stories of experiences with the supernatural. Each of the regulars has his own encounter to recall but the one shared by Valerie is the most chilling, being obviously her own real, and painfully recent, experience.

The Weir  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThere is not much physical action in “The Weir,” but the emotional currents run with increasing swiftness and, as the focus shifts from one to another, the truth of Jack’s statement “There is no dark like a winter night in the country” becomes chillingly real as does the fact that the warm lights in the Weir offer each at least a temporary shelter from the wind that blows incessantly, providing an increasingly ominous underscoring of the world outside..

The strength of the production is in the performances. Each of the actors takes hold of his/her character and delivers a realistic and sometimes painful look behind the universal exterior. Relationships are revealed, restated, renewed and begun before the last lights in The Weir are shut off for the night.

There is a relaxed and easy camaraderie between Jack and Brendan that speaks to a real friendship. Jim, the third point in the triangle, seeks equal footing but is somehow frequently the odd man out. Finbar, who never forgets his economic status, is more the outsider than the new girl in town and the hostility between he and Jack is frequently palpable.

All the players are relaxed and easy with their roles, with Svelmoe perhaps the most riveting as he lets go of his initial bravado to tell of a lost love. All are perfect examples of “less is more.”

Sam Jones scenic design sets the locale immediately and the sound design by director Jackson is almost a sixth character.

“THE WEIR” plays Wednesday through Sunday in the intimate Warner Theatre in the theater at 215 W. Madison St. For performance times and reservations call (574) 234-1112 between 3 and 6 p.m.