As Martin Luther King Day has just passed, we find ourselves in the middle of a time when race has come to the forefront, making it the perfect time for Austin Playhouse to present their latest work, Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop”, a look at the final hours in the life of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King. A fictionalized account of his final night at the Lorraine Motel, we follow King and a charismatic but mysterious maid named Carrie Mae as they smoke, drink, and experience an evening of camaraderie and surprises.
From the very first moments of “The Mountaintop”, it’s obvious that the King that writer Katori Hall presents isn’t the heralded statesman for peace that the history class has taught us. After all, the first things we see King do is call out for smokes, and urinate. Here, we find King with all his humanity intact, with all his weakness and pride. We see him in tears, we see him pleading, we see his rare moments of selfishness. This isn’t to say that the play paints King in a bad light, as even at his worst moments, there’s still a sense of righteousness to him, that even if he’s lecherous, or vain, he is always working to change humanity for the better. It’s this dichotomy that makes the play work so well, as it helps us relate to someone who is often painted as a higher being, and helps shows us that he is, in the end, just a man.
Though obviously a tough role , Marc Pouhe plays the dichotomy of the character well. He’s lecherous, he smokes, he drinks, and he curses, and Pouhe brings relaxed style to his performance, but even in his most casual moments, there’s still a sense of command, of authority. When he gets moments to show raw emotion, the stage explodes, as Pouhe turns on a startling dynamism that leaves one breathless. He flies from furious anger to abject sorrow with not a moment’s hesitation, and makes everything believable. He may not necessarily look the part of Dr. King, but through his cadence, through his gestures, and through his presence, you almost get the feeling of having the man himself grace the stage.
Acting alongside Pouhe is Carla Nickerson, as Carrie Mae, who comes in as a maid, but is soon shown to be something different entirely. Nickerson has shown Austin audiences her talent for comedy throughout the years, including a noteworthy performance in Zach’s “Sonia and Vanya and Masha and Spike”, and here she proves just what wonderful timing she has. She carries herself with a rare confidence, meeting Pouhe beat for beat in most scenes, and when she turns on her charm is difficult to look away. She has her fair share of heartfelt moments as well, which she caries with similar aplomb.
The play may not always balance its comedy and drama as well as it could, but as the final bows are taken in Austin Playhouse’s production of “The Mountaintop”, director Don Toner and company have given us an emotionally fulfilling look at the life of one of history’s most loved figures. Pouhe gives his performance a rich humanity, that helps us see the many facets of King, and alongside the quick wit of Nickerson, the performances help to present us with a clear picture of both the man, and his legacy.
“The Mountaintop” runs just around 90 minutes with no intermission, and plays at Austin Playhouse’s Highland Mall stage through January 25. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Austin Playhouse site at austinplayhouse.com
Photo Courtesy of Christopher Loveless