Luna Stage is an incubator for great works and the progenitor of many world premiere events. The latest is the presentation of a play Luna Stage commissioned from the brilliant young playwright Ben Clawson. Clawson has a gift for dialogue and this is abundantly clear in “King of the Mountains,” the story of what might have been during an actual camping trip that an erstwhile new President took with America’s favorite naturalist.
Ian Gould as Teddy Roosevelt and Rik Walter as John Muir take us on a journey. Clawson limns each character early on. Roosevelt, the brusque man’s man, is someone Hemingway would have loved: a big game hunter and takers of risks. Muir is the naturalist, an outdoorsman of a different kind, who takes away experiences and leaves only footprints, his natural Scots humor pricking the vanity and privilege of Roosevelt, who considers himself self-made, though the President’s “camping” is supported by a host of people.
The spare set and the sparring of the players sets the stage for something happening then that makes one hopeful for the pendulum to swing. These men are actually engaging one another in philosophical and physical wrestling with issues. In these days, our tussles over wind farms and the nefarious Pilgrim Pipeline could do with more physical face time and less time buried in screens like phones, tablets and computers. Physical and philosophical engagement, which led to Roosevelt protecting lands at the urging of Muir, preserves treasures in nature that we cannot replace. Speaking to people in person and actual exchange of energy are what’s wanted, in my opinion, to keep green spaces green.
Gould’s Roosevelt is a man of intellect and bluster. Though convinced he’s regularly in the right, he’s amenable to reason. Walter’s Muir is a canny philosopher whose words pierce deeply between the armor plates of Roosevelt’s privilege to get to the heart of the matter–preserving nature that both love. The ways they mix it up, the world Clawson creates, draws you in. The language is compelling in itself and Muir admired Roosevelt, but Teddy could not wriggle out of the Scots’ logic. This play will remain with you even as you exit the theater. Watching these performers is like watching a symphony, the hallmark of an excellent and extended conversation.
Be sure to visit the Context Room prior to or immediately after the show. There is a great deal of information about Ben Clawson, what the world was like in 1903, and a sense of what the battle for resources was about. We address similar questions today. Let’s hope future generations appreciate the decisions we make, as we appreciate those of Muir and Roosevelt.
“King of the Mountains” runs through October 30, at 555 Valley Road, in West Orange, New Jersey. Want to wow your favorite fan of the great outdoors? Get your tickets by visiting www.lunastage.org
and remember to arrive early for best parking and the Context Room!