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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Mountain — Bristol Riverside Theatre

mountain -- interiorThe thrilling thing about Keith Baker’s towering performance as Justice William O. Douglas in “Mountain” is how the actor’s wit and thoroughness goes beyond the biography of Douglas Scott’s script and establishes the critical theatrical difference between a stirring visit with a complex, controversial figure and a canned, by-the-numbers tribute that, at times, descends to pandering.

Baker provides a vivid portrait of Douglas that stresses the jurist’s vast breadth of focus, from appreciation of nature to championing liberty, and human imperfection over a litany of factual details of life, which emerge as they should, in Susan D. Atkinson’s taut production, incidentally.

Baker conveys the intrinsic individualism of Douglas while keeping pomp and magnitude in proportion so that you see Douglas a man first and as an icon, maverick, ideologist, and shaper of judicial policy in passing. Baker modulates his superb baritone to shrewdly, yet naturally, wring ironic and comic inflection from Scott’s lines. His timing is equally precise so that jokes play, formative thoughts come off as musings rather than pronouncements, and all context material has its maximum effect. Baker’s is a performance that measures all Scott provides carefully but makes it seem congenial and conversational as opposed to pedantic or blindly laudatory.

“Mountain,” in lesser hands, can come off as an occasion for bragging with a few mea culpas thrown in for humility. Baker, with help from castmates Kenneth Boys and Sandy York, makes Scott’s decent but undistinguished script sound like an aria as he shows us a person who can balance his triumphs with his faults and display his passion for the law and its power while letting us share his affection for the wide spaces of his native Washington mountains, the Cascades, and his reasons for travel and for cogitating so finely over how vestiges of law affect the everyday man.

You don’t have to agree with each of Douglas’s political or judicial stances — He recants some. — to admire Baker’s portrayal of him. Writing in 1990, Scott saddles Baker with punch lines about Richard Nixon and other liberal bêtes noirs and makes it plain that he seeks, as a playwright, the nodding approval of the politically correct in the house, but Baker sidesteps such traps by approaching all as Douglas is acquainting you with his interests and points of view. Baker’s performance and Atkinson’s production keep “Mountain” intimate and narrative and prevent it becoming a play with big messages.

William O. Douglas is at the forefront, and that’s the way it should be.

It is interesting to see the scope of and influences on Douglas’s life. He was independent in spirit, a non-conformist by temperament, and unafraid to be the one among thousand, or nine, to espouse and maintain an opinion that countered common thought or popularity. Not judging on guilt or innocence Douglas is willing to grant a stay to the scheduled executions of spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg based on judicial procedure, a judge pronouncing the death penalty without consulting a jury. (Douglas’s stay was overturned. I, personally, believe the Rosenbergs guilty and have no pity for their fate, but on point of law, I’d have agree with and acted like Douglas.) In one of “Mountain’s” more emotional moments, Douglas is asked to rule on the fate of Gordon Hirabayashi and votes with court majority by upholding the fifth-generation American student’s sentence to prison for refusal to report to California internment camp established for people of Japanese descent during World War II. Baker shows Douglas’s pain as he explains and deliberates over Hirabayashi’s fate. You can see from his expression that his decision to convict Hirabayashi is reluctant and involves more than a shadow of doubt. The struggle Baker silently but definitely conveys gives color and meaning to “Mountain’s” next lines in which Douglas says justice is not the same as popular opinion, a lesson he will put to future use when tempted to conform for Court unity or public praise.

The nature of justice becomes just as important to Douglas as the nature of the Cascade wilderness where likes to take extended rides on horseback or climb perilous cliffs. All of this is part of “Mountain,” but Baker makes it richer by showing by posture and a look of a man breathing fresh air how content, comfortable, and elated Baker is to be in raw, unmanicured terrain. Baker goes beyond acting or conveying a feeling. His whole being seems to embrace Douglas’s delight and wonder at riding precarious ridges, seeing the Columbia River below, and Mt. Rainier adjacent.

Baker always has a tone of enthusiasm in his voice talking about the law and as the United States as a nation of laws. As Douglas, he makes the point that the law is absolute but subject, when not specific, to clarification or interpretation. Scott gives him a witty passage in which he eschews the standard of gauging the Founding Fathers’ constitutional intention by noting the Founding Fathers left no clues in a particular case because the Founding Fathers knew nothing about microphones, recording devices, or cameras, hidden or otherwise and would be shocked to see them. Privacy, and violating it without a proper warrant was the issue, and Douglas would use mid-1950s prudence, and not telepathy through centuries to cast his vote (which was that surveillance techniques unspecified in a code illegally intruded on privacy, even in a case where guilt was established, if they were applied in a way contrary to mandated procedure and are, therefore, inadmissible as evidence).

Baker and Atkinson are astute in touching on Douglas’s private life without being overcritical or overdramatic. The Justice’s neglect and estrangement from his children is effective enough without being emphasized. Scenes with three of Baker’s wives — You hear about but do not see Joan, the third Mrs. Douglas. — provides change of pace to talk about politics or the law and can be quite entertaining, as Sandy York gives the right measure of personality to Douglas’s first wife, Mildred, who would have preferred the life of a Yale Law dean, and second, Mercedes, who fits well into Washington society. Douglas’s serial marriages take on importance because was so distant from his children and because it seems he only remained with Mildred because he hoped to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944 and couldn’t risk a divorce spoiling his chances. “Mountain” makes a point about showing Democrat Party chair, Robert Hannegan, a Missourian, reversing the names on FDR’s list to put Harry Truman’s ahead of Douglas’s as the President’s choice. While the politics at the time were a bit more complex than Scott depicts them, the selection of Truman has significance because it was well-known FDR, though age 62, would probably not survive his fourth term — He lived only five weeks into it. — and man elected as Vice President in 1944 was bound to succeed him in the White House. Had FDR gotten his original way, that person would have been William O. Douglas.

NealBoxDouglas’s closeness with FDR, which begins with Douglas’s appointment to the Security and Exchange Commission and leads to 36 years on the Supreme Court, is well chronicled, as is Douglas’s respect for Louis Brandeis, the jurist who recommended him to FDR and whose seat on the Court he took. Douglas’s famous enmity for another Justice, Felix Frankfurter, is barely treated (and justifiably so). I note it only because “Mountain’s” most important reference to Frankfurter is a case about which they concurred and united to sway other opinions.

While Baker is every way dominates the Bristol Riverside stage, he is by no means its only occupant. Kenneth Boys and Sandy York are called on to play a parade of characters ranging from Douglas’s parents and Yakima, Washington townsmen to fairly contemporary figures such as Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

While Boys does excellent work as Gordon Hirabayashi, Louis Brandeis, FDR, he tends to play most of his characters in a quick, fluttery, hand-wringing manner who seem intimidated by Douglas. His Nixon is pure caricature from the ’60s and includes the deep shrug and outstretched arms brandishing the “V” sign for “victory.” The image is iconic but overstated. It comments it ways Scott might welcome but Baker and Atkinson have avoided and becomes a comedy bit rather than a scene between two of the more formidable leaders of their time. At the mention of Gerald Ford, Boys throw his arms in the air as if balancing himself and almost trips as he climbs some steps. Again, this might be a familiar “Saturday Night Live” bit from the ’70s, but it doesn’t fit the tone of “Mountain” even if Douglas is denigrating Ford (who, by the way, I once witnessed tripping over a cord in a TV studio; he, thank goodness, did not fall).

Sandy York is poignant as Mildred Douglas and charming as Mercedes Douglas as she plays opposite Baker unobtrusively but effectively.

Charles Morgan’s set is almost as monumental as Mr. Justice Douglas himself. Composed of long, vertical fabric panels, fanning out from the center with the middle panel being the farthest upstage, the panels become screens of which all kinds of vistas are projected, from the glory of the Washington Cascades of the stately majesty of Washington, D.C. Caite Hevner Kemps’s projection make bold, telling backgrounds that can show how isolated one small house can be and how grand the American capital can look. Linda Bee Stockton dresses Douglas in a Western shirt and jeans that suit all occasions. York has only move a scarf or change an accessory to move from one character to the next.

Except for letting Boys get away with his Ford and Nixon schtick, which was recognizable and funny in spite of being overdone, Susan D. Atkinson does an excellent in guiding Baker though his pacing. The Bristol stage acquires the atmosphere of the setting in which Douglas is located, so “Mountain” has texture and always authentic in mood and detail.

“Mountain” runs through Sunday, November 22, at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $47 to $37 and can be obtained by calling 215-785-0100 or by visiting www.brtstage.org.

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