Keith Baker is the difference that keeps Douglas Scott’s 1990 play “Mountain — The Journey of Justice Douglas” from being somewhat dated and sometimes pandering at the Bristol Riverside Theater.
By perfectly modulating his superb voice to wring ironic or comic inflections, and timing key lines to have maximum contextual effect, Baker accentuates the best in Scott’s piece and gets us past easy, if warranted, shots at Richard Nixon and other betes noirs of the left to show us the formative influences, legal prowess, individualism, and maverick ways of Justice William O. Douglas, who was a leading figure on the Supreme Court from his appointment by FDR in 1939 to his illness-prompted retirement in 1975.
In lesser hands, Scott’s script can be an occasion with back-patting boasting with tinges of regret about the times Douglas succumbed to conformity. Baker turns it into an affectionate but full portrait of a complex man whose ideals were first shaped in the region he region he spent his youth, Yakima County, Washington, and who struggled with some instances of going along with the court majority to please his idea of public sentiment before he became a fierce independent who filed dissenting votes based on his conscience and reading of the U.S. Constitution.
Because of Baker, Douglas’ respect for both the law and a large, useful life shines through Scott’s dialogue, and you are left with the faith that the law is flexible and designed less to control than to systematize and define. The actor hits the right note of sarcasm when he states the Founding Fathers did not account for surveillance issues in the Constitution because they couldn’t conceive of microphones, tape recorders, or cameras, hidden or otherwise.
He is moving when expressing Douglas’ everlasting remorse about letting a multi-generational American citizen, Gordon Hirabayashi, be sent to federal prison during World War II because he refused to report to an internment camp sequestering people of Japanese descent.
Baker conveys all of Douglas’ ideas, affections, and foibles with dignified clarity that allows for the human side of the man and character, strengths and frailties, to emerge. His Douglas is not a saint. He makes mistakes. He at times chooses to favor the heart when the mind should prevail, and at other instances puts intellect above sentiment. Scott, who is not as meticulous as Baker in presenting Douglas, gives Baker the tools to show us an uncommon man who had the courage to follow his instincts and put his beliefs about life and the law into discernible action. By doing so, he often brought the permissible scope of the Supreme Court into question.
Among “Mountain’s” plot threads, Scott stresses Douglas’ love for travel and adventure and says his trips to foreign places and frequent communing with nature were mostly a way for him to study man and nature at their most basic. Baker is dynamically enlightening when Douglas expresses his desire to meet and talk to average people from all over the globe. Douglas says he did not think it wise to judge the laws that govern man without knowing who man is and how laws affect him. Or her.
Susan D. Atkinson’s production paces “Mountain” beautifully. You never feel as if any passage is lagging or prolonged, a blessing in what is essentially, in spite of two supporting actors playing several roles, a solo piece. Atkinson and several designers — Charles Morgan on set, Joe Doran on lighting, and Caite Hevner Kemp on projections — dress the Bristol stage elegantly via vertical cloth screens on which various vistas are projected.
The majesty of two Washingtons, the Cascades near Mt. Rainier where Douglas found spiritual renewal and, almost lost his life, and the stately columns of the nation’s capital, are vividly and illustratively expressed by the impressively fanning images that paint the Bristol stage in grandeur and give a fine idea of the expansiveness Douglas enjoyed in his mind and in his surroundings.
Kenneth Boys and Sandy York portray various characters Douglas encounters. Boys has a tendency to play most figures as fussy hand wringers who seem exasperated or distracted when approaching Douglas. As Richard Nixon, he resorts to a common caricature that elicits recognition and laughs but erodes the realism Baker establishes. As Gerald Ford, he trips clumsily on stairs in a gimmick prudence would have guided him to avoid. Boys’ best stints were as FDR, Louis Brandeis, the Justice whose court seat he took, and Douglas’ son, Bill, with whom Douglas was never affectionate.
Sandy York is efficient in her portrayals, steering away from excess. She is particularly effective as Douglas’ first two wives, Mildred, who would have preferred Douglas remain a Yale Law dean, and Mercedes, a D.C. socialite whom York gives a charming Southern accent. Scott delves into how Douglas’ marital squabbles, and his three divorces and four marriages, figured into his political options.
“Mountain” also touches on Douglas’ disappointment at coming in second for the Democrat’s 1944 vice presidential nomination to Harry Truman, who succeeded FDR less than two months after he was sworn into office. Most of all, it shows a man who became increasing devoted to civil rights and personal liberty, and a man who is given magnitude and humanity by Keith Baker.
Mountain, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, November 22, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $37 to $47. 215-785-0100 www.brtstage.org.