If you don’t know anything about William O. Douglas (1898-1980), the man who served on the United States Supreme Court longer than any other justice, Douglas Scott’s play Mountain: The Journey of Justice Douglas will tell you everything you’d ever want to know. It’s packed with information about his most important judicial decisions, about his years as a law professor, about his aborted political ambitions, about his struggles with childhood polio, about his family, about his passion for the outdoors and his embrace of environmental conservation. And hey, did you know he played the harmonica? Well, you’ll learn that here too.
All of those facts – well, most of them – are interesting, and if you’re a history buff, the fast-moving Mountain will keep your interest for two hours. But while it’s worthwhile as a history lesson, Mountain isn’t especially dramatic. It crams in dozens of events from Douglas’ 81 years, but by giving so many of these events equal time, there’s little sense of what the playwright thinks Douglas’ most important accomplishments were. For instance, a story about his involvement in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision is given as much weight as an anecdote about his encounter with the grieving girlfriend of an Army buddy killed in World War One. Focusing on one or two crucial cases and showing how they were turning points in his life would have made for a more dynamic version of Douglas’ story. And while Douglas himself is portrayed as a brilliant, curious, and cantankerous character, he never comes across as a larger-than-life personality, the kind of person whose story was begging to be brought to life onstage.
Mountain sure covers a lot of ground. In the play’s early minutes, Douglas, appointed to the court by FDR, makes several political jibes about Republicans, especially Presidents Nixon and Ford – but these attacks seem like cheap shots because we don’t yet know enough of Douglas’ character to explain why he feels that way about his opponents. Eventually, though, the play fleshes out Douglas by depicting his encounters with people from all strata of society and showing how these meetings informed his decisions. We see how he came to realize that privacy is a crucial right, and how he learned that fighting Communism wasn’t a good reason to take away someone’s civil rights. And while the play lauds Douglas for his championing of the environment and individual rights, it also shows his flaws. We see Douglas’ callous treatment of his first wife and his children, and how his four marriages – two of them to women four decades younger than him – damaged his reputation.
Director Susan D. Atkinson gives Mountain a dignified production with good acting and solid, if unspectacular, staging. Keith Baker gives an excellent performance as Douglas: he’s avuncular and authoritative, but he also bristles with frustration when he finds something that irritates him. Two other performers, Kenneth Boys and Sandy York, play all the other characters. They never change their costumes – Designer has given them bland business attire – but they vary their voices and personalities impressively. Boys is especially good playing everyone from Roosevelt to Nixon, from elderly justices to teenagers, from an Iranian official to a Japanese-American internee. York is stuck playing the women in Douglas’ life, which means mostly his wives and his mother, most of whom come off as colorless.
Charles Morgan’s set design consists mostly of white curtains that serve as the background for a series of projections – projections that take the audience from the Yale campus to the Himalayas to the mountains of Washington State. The layered style of the curtains gives the stage a lush look, making the projections look unexpectedly substantial.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
Mountain: The Journey of Justice Douglas plays through November 22, 2015 at Bristol Riverside Theatre – 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 785-0100, or purchase them online.