Once the show’s protagonist lights the first of several cigarettes he smokes over the course of the following 90-odd minutes, it’s a fair sign that this isn’t going to be a traditional portrait of the iconic character — who happens to be none other than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” takes place on the eve of his tragic 1968 assassination, in a modest room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, imagining an encounter between the revered civil rights leader and a feisty, flirtatious, foul-mouthed (and fictional) housekeeper named Camae.
That King might have chain-smoked Pall Malls — or occasionally worn socks with a hole in them — may not seem like a very big deal. Perhaps more pertinent is how, as his relationship with Camae develops, King’s alleged reputation as a womanizer also factors into Hall’s fabrication of things.
None of which is to deny or to minimize the momentous historical significance his social and political activism had on the country (and the world). But, as a dramatic role on stage or screen, King is typically depicted simply as a paragon of righteous virtue, when he was every bit as much down-to-earth, with flaws and weaknesses like any other human being.
What’s rather refreshing about “The Mountaintop,” at least during its first half, is how Hall makes an admirable effort to humanize King, when she could have taken the more conventional approach by merely deifying him instead. Between platitudes — “Whites hate too easily, blacks love too much” — he also confesses to Camae some of his deepest fears. By his own admission to her, he’s “just an ordinary man,” no greater a “saint” than a “sinner.”
Capably performed by Neal Ghant and Cynthia D. Barker, Aurora Theatre’s production of Hall’s two-hander is solidly staged by Eric J. Little. (Although he’s most widely regarded as a terrific actor, recently Little has carved out a niche for himself directing stories about real people: last fall’s one-man Thurgood Marshall show at Theatrical Outfit; True Colors’ Muhammad Ali/Stepin Fetchit drama “Fetch Clay, Make Man” in 2015.)
Where “The Mountaintop” crumbles — and disastrously so, midway through — is with a totally preposterous plot twist that beggars description. To be sure, it’s only ingenious to the extent that it essentially defies a theater critic from elaborating on its utter absurdity, lest he “spoil” the so-called surprise. Suffice to say it involves a certain degree of divine intervention.
Silly, yes. Worse yet, inexcusable. The prolonged gimmick basically defeats the play’s own purpose, which sets out to paint King as a realistically ordinary man, and then thrusts upon him a supernaturally extraordinary turn of events. It doesn’t exactly trivialize the importance of his calling or mission in life, but it does somehow diminish the impact of his ultimate sacrifice for the cause.
Through Feb. 12. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 10 a.m. Wednesday (Feb. 1 only). $20-$55. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222, www.auroratheatre.com.
Bottom line: By turns lofty and ludicrous.
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