There’s Hope on ‘The Mountaintop’

The Mountaintop_4

Donte Plunkett as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Catie Zaleski as Camae

On the night before his death, a mysterious woman helps Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. face his mortality and the future of his cause.  This is The Mountaintop by Katori Hall and playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Ms Hall has written one of the most uniquely constructed scripts I have seen in quite a spell.  Whether by coincidence or design, the script is actually built as if it is a trek up and down a mountain.  It is a long, sometimes laborious, climb to the summit.  But once the peak is reached, the play really begins to pop and rapidly races down to the finale.  While the first half of the play could be a little dry, the second half provides some compelling viewpoints on racial harmony, faith, mortality, how far we’ve come as a people in overcoming our hatred and biases, and how much further we still have to climb.

Denise Chapman has provided an admirable and nuanced piece of direction to the production.  She has staged the play well, keeping her 2 actors animated with a constant moving about of King’s hotel room.  She also has a good instinct for maximizing the play’s twists and surprises and really makes those moments stand out and sing.  Ms Chapman has also guided her thespians to a pair of solid performances.

Donte Plunkett gives a worthy performance as Martin Luther King, Jr.  His features not only bear a remarkable similarity to the real King, but he also managed to tap into a great deal of his essence.  Plunkett exudes a confidence, authority, and gentleness suiting the great Civil Rights leader.  But he also shows a quiet sense of humor and a tragic vulnerability especially when he has a conversation with God about his mortality.  I was also impressed with how well Plunkett carried off a less than savory aspect of King’s personality, his reported weakness for women, with his charming and eyeballing of Camae.

Catie Zaleski’s take on Camae is a master class in putting on faces.  It’s hard to know what to make of Camae at first.  She seems to be so many things.  She readily flirts with Dr. King.  She curses like a sailor and then apologizes for cursing in front of the famed Baptist minister.  She can be very blue collar and seemingly uneducated in one moment, then start spitting out college level words and improvising a Kingesque speech in the next.  At one moment, she seems fully aligned with King’s mission, then diametrically opposed in the next.

When the truth behind this chameleon like behavior is revealed, Ms Zaleski nails the tragic hopefulness of a character who is looking to expiate her own sins.

I thought the performances could be further enhanced with a brisker pace and a bit more energy to kick off the show.  Volume and diction were also off at a couple of early points in the show.

I was exceptionally impressed with the show’s technical elements.  Jim Othuse has designed a clean and comfortable motel room at the Lorraine Motel.  John Gibilisco’s constant claps of thunder well communicated the oncoming storm in King’s life.  I loved Herman Montero’s use of lighting, especially the starlight at the play’s conclusion.  Amanda Fehlner’s costuming captured the essence of the well-dressed man of God and the blue collar housekeeper.

It takes a little patience to get to the play’s core, but it is worth the wait as it touches on themes of race and equality that are still important today.  We have grown quite a bit as a people, but there is still a lot of growing to do.

The Mountaintop plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through May 27.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to strong language and some mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

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