‘King of the Mountains’: A camping trip that made history

Rik Walter, left, and Ian Gould co-star in "King of the Mountains," which is at Luna Stage in West Orange through Oct. 30.

CHRISTOPHER DRUKKER

Rik Walter, left, and Ian Gould co-star in “King of the Mountains,” which is at Luna Stage in West Orange through Oct. 30.

To quote the latest Nobel Prize winner in literature, Bob Dylan, “even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” And that’s what “King of the Mountains” is about.

I’m not talking about literal nakedness. But the two-man drama, which is having its world premiere at the Luna Stage in West Orange through Oct. 30, is about a president who finds himself in a situation where he is stripped of the armor that his position in the world provides, and has to look inward.

It’s a historical drama, in one sense. Commissioned with the support of the Dramatists Guild Fund to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, it’s about a camping trip that President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir took in Yosemite National Park in 1903.

But more accurately, perhaps, it could be called a psychological drama. Because it’s largely about how Roosevelt, confronted by the wily Muir, comes to question his beliefs, and change his mind. It’s essentially one long conversation, though at times, playwright Ben Clawson flash-forwards to other points in the characters’ lives, and has them read letters they wrote to each other.

Luna Stage’s artistic director, Cheryl Katz, directed this production, and keeps the men in constant motion, as if they’re boxers, circling each other. Christopher and John Swader are responsible for the clever set design, which finds the two men spending most of their time sitting or standing on a large map, tilted to make it look like something you would find in nature. Wardrobe supervisor Deborah Caney helps establish the characters’ identities by outfitting Roosevelt in a comfortable sweater and Muir in the tweedy suit of a writer-educator. Roosevelt is there to enjoy nature; Muir, to work.

That’s the first conflict we become aware of after Roosevelt (played by Ian Gould) and Muir (played by Rik Walter) take the stage. Roosevelt planned the trip as rest and relaxation, and invited Muir because he admired his writings — and, as a conservationist himself, thought Muir was a kindred spirit. Muir, though, hasn’t even read Roosevelt’s writings, and is not about to flatter him. He is aware that Roosevelt has done some good things for the environment, but wants him to do more, and takes the opportunity to lobby.

As played by Gould and Walter, the two men have very different physical presences. Roosevelt is loud and energetic, a creature of the city even though he truly loves the country as well. Muir is more at home in nature — he’s calm and centered, with no extraneous movements. Roosevelt speaks his mind with no hesitation; Muir looks inward, with a wry smile, keeping his secrets to himself.

It’s clear that while Roosevelt may be president, in the mountains it’s Muir who is the king.

And so, the king and the president spar, intellectually. Roosevelt — used to getting his own way — at first refuses to even talk about anything political. But Muir, in his gentle but quietly insistent way, wears him down. He manipulates, he persuades, he inspires. Roosevelt talks about the pressures he is under, and the limitations that the political process imposes. Muir refuses to back down.

Progress is eventually made — progress that, as those post-camping letter show, really did have a historic impact.

Did it all happen the way Clawson depicts it? It’s impossible to say, since no one was on the trip with Roosevelt in Muir. But the play has the ring of truth, and that’s all you can ask for.

“King of the Mountains” is at Luna Stage in West Orange through Oct. 30; visit lunastage.org.

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