We’re in Memphis, Tennessee. The date is April 3, 1968, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has come to the city to voice his support for its sanitation workers. Exhausted and exasperated after delivering his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, King retires to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. The following day, he will be dead, a victim of an assassin’s bullet. The Mountaintop, penned by Katori Hall, imagines what the iconic civil rights leader did on his final night, focusing on a conversation between Dr. King (Sekou Laidlow) and a mysterious maid named Camae (Amirah Vann).
A hit on Broadway with both audiences and critics, The Mountaintop would seem to be a perfect vehicle for Philadelphia Theatre Company’s celebration of Black History Month. But PTC’s production was artistically derailed when its stagehands joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 8 and went on strike last month, shortly before the show was due to open in previews. The two-week strike ended on Feb. 1, so theatergoers are no longer faced with the tragic irony of having to cross a picket line to see a play about a man seeking to aid beleaguered laborers. But the walkout left The Mountaintop with an unfinished set, no sound design, limited lighting design and no video projections, which play a key role late in the production.
While PTC officials are thrilled that the strike is over, it proved to be logistically impossible to restore the play’s missing design elements, so The Mountaintop’s sound and lighting cues are being read by actress Cathy Simpson, and the planned video projections by Barrymore Award-winner Jorge Cousineau remain unseen. Because stagehands were responsible for hanging electrical instruments, installing and programming all the sound elements, as well as executing the lighting and sound cues, if nothing else, The Mountaintop succeeds in showcasing the importance of their work, particularly in a section featuring video projections chronicling the civil rights struggle. If Simpson didn’t read the intended effect, the production would be hopelessly confusing. Nonetheless, hearing an actor say “Loud crack of thunder” is not nearly as effective as hearing the actual sound. And although the play isn’t ruined by the lack of light, sound and visual effects, Hall’s intended impact is severely diminished, in large part because the storm raging outside is, in effect, the third character in the play—a constant reminder of both the forces battling against King and that despite his determination and ability to inspire, he is only a man. Hall succeeds in humanizing the larger-than-life King without sacrificing his status as an American hero. Sadly, though, the play’s conclusion—which calls for a moving video montage—is read but never seen.
The Mountaintop’s missing effects ultimately bring out the best in Laidlow and Vann, both of whom give performances that aren’t just skilled, but also welcoming. Far from standoffish, they make the audience feel as if we are inside the motel room, living a part of American history. Perhaps recognizing the obstacles they’ve been forced to overcome, Saturday night’s audience rewarded the performers—including Simpson—with the longest standing ovation I’ve seen in years.
Through Feb 17. $46-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard sts. 215.985.0420. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org