Review | Amid peaks and valleys, ‘The Mountaintop’ taps into MLK’s humanity

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“The Mountaintop” doesn’t scale the summit of its ambitions until its final moments at Round House Theatre, as spoken-word poetry and video projections make the most of the play’s ethereal trappings. Otherwise, this absorbing if uneven historical fantasy about Martin Luther King Jr.’s final night is at its best when rooted in reality — reveling in a saintly figure’s unguarded moments and uncomfortable foibles.

This King, you see, is imbued with imperfection. As envisioned by playwright Katori Hall and richly embodied by Ro Boddie — revisiting the role he played in a 2016 Cleveland production — the civil rights icon lies to his wife, sneaks in late-night cigarettes, and peels off his smelly shoes to expose tattered socks. When he isn’t inviting infidelity and making moves on Camae (Renea S. Brown), the plucky maid who brings late-night coffee to Room 306 of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, he’s dismissing her with casual sexism or whipping through paranoia-driven mood swings.

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Under Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s steady direction, “The Mountaintop” humanizes a larger-than-life figure while reflecting on his outsize legacy. Set hours after King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and hours before his April 4, 1968, assassination on his motel balcony, Hall’s fictionalization finds the activist exhausted by the relentlessness of White rage. “They hate so easily,” he observes between coughing fits, “and we love too much.” But he’s nonetheless committed to his nonviolence ethos — despite challenges from Camae, a Malcolm X-sympathizing advocate, for more proactive paths to Black empowerment.

Boddie, superb in Round House’s “The Tempest” and “A Boy and His Soul,” embraces the artifice of King’s dignified image while theatrically deepening his voice on the phone or purposefully strutting around Paige Hathaway’s motel room set (a backdrop that’s fittingly nondescript — until it isn’t). That heightened portrayal makes King’s eventual rumination on mortality all the more affecting, as “The Mountaintop” pivots from hero-worship deconstruction to a moving portrait of grief and guilt on death’s door.

King’s clairvoyance is the crux of Hall’s fantastical conceit, which occasionally veers the play into rote melodrama (“I still have so much work to do!” King pleads) and hit-or-miss comic relief. As Camae, King’s unlikely companion during his existential reckoning, Brown lends a mischievous edge to an endearing but inconsistently sketched character. Alternately flirtatious and combative, the duo’s chemistry pushes along a tale that feels even leaner than its 100-minute run time would suggest.

Nick Hernandez’s savvy sound design ups the tension, with ominous cracks of thunder amid the rainfall’s omnipresent patter. The soundscapes also evoke the chaos of police crackdowns on nonviolent marches, in a sequence accompanied by Zavier A.L. Taylor’s striking projections (even if the images sometimes seemed washed out during Monday’s opening night performance). Using kinetic pencil-drawn imagery at times and rotoscope-style animation at others, Taylor’s design takes center stage during that tear-jerking finale as King gets a glimpse of his enduring influence.

In an astute touch, the projections also gesture beyond the play’s 2009 London premiere or 2011 Broadway debut — tethering the proceedings to our nation’s recent racial reckoning and underlining the timelessness of Hall’s script. By dwelling on King’s humanity, “The Mountaintop” shrewdly emphasizes just how much change one man can effect. Like any decent work of historical fiction, this one ultimately wields embellishment as a tool for unlocking a greater truth.

The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall. Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. Sets, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Brandee Mathies; lighting, Sherrice Mojgani; sound, Nick Hernandez; projections, Zavier A.L. Taylor. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Through Nov. 5 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. roundhousetheatre.org.

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