"We've got difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter to me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop."
Katori Hall riffs on Martin Luther King Jr.'s prophetic last speech in her play "The Mountaintop." In the 2010 Olivier Award winner, the daring playwright takes us back in time to April 3, 1968, transporting us to Room 306 at the dingy old Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.
It's the day before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This is his last night on Earth, and the heavens mark the occasion with claps of thunder as the country marches toward a watershed act of violence that will change history.
The wildly theatrical drama, which starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett on Broadway, gets a nuanced staging by director Anthony J. Haney. Provocative and compelling despite its imperfections, "Mountaintop" makes its regional premiere through April 7 at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto.
Hall invites us to see King (played with quiet intensity by Adrian Roberts) not as an icon but as a flesh and blood man. Holed up in this seedy motel room on the eve of yet another battle for the rights of the poor, King is dispirited. His famously persuasive voice is hoarse; his mind is weary.
The omnipresent struggle has taken its toll. Hounded by death threats and wire taps, he checks for bugs and looks over his shoulder like a man on the lam. He dreams of a better world, but he gives in to the temptations of this one as well. He likes his
That's why he's in no rush to get a comely young maid out of his room. Her name is Camae (Simone Missick), and she's bright and brassy as a new penny.
This is her first day on the job, and she makes the most out of her encounter with the legendary preacher. They flirt, they drink, and they surprise us.
Know this, Hall has her eye on more than history. "Mountaintop" switches from docudrama to magic realism within its 90 minutes, and the segues can be jarring, but they are also purposeful. This is a surreal world where flowers blossom through the carpet and destiny hides in back alleys.
It would be unfair to reveal the play's twists, but suffice it to say Hall aims to tie the tragedies of the civil rights era with the forces that shape our own time. She summons up the legacy of King to show us not how far we have come but how far we have yet to go, and it's not a pretty sight.
Eric Sinkkonen's set slyly suggests the dizzying scope of the text with its shards of thunder juxtaposed against a squalid little room.
The play's gutsy shifts in tone would not work if the performances weren't so well-crafted. For the most part, Haney keeps the plot's wild leaps grounded in emotional authenticity.
Roberts imbues the preacher with charm and wit, although it is a tall order to channel King's gift for oration. The actor is most successful capturing King's fearlessness in the face of peril and his depth of feeling for the downtrodden. On the night before he is slain, King fears most that no one will take up the cause of the have-nots in a land ruled by the mighty.
Missick is as smooth as caramel as Camae, a Southern belle with a Memphis drawl that sweetens her frequently salty vocabulary. If the actress needs more clarity when delivering this richly lyrical accent, she nails the character's potent sense of mystery. The exchanges between these two lost souls crackle with chemistry and a shared anguish for the evils bedeviling the nation.
Camae applauds King's war on poverty, but she does not think he has fought as hard as he should.
"Walking will only get you so far, Preacher King,'' she warns. When he explains, "We're not just walking; we're marching,'' her answer drips with frustration: "Whatever it is, it ain't working.''
Hall doesn't quite pull off all of her bold theatrical devices, but she does thrust the spirit of King's legacy into the world today and force us to reconcile our own place in the path of progress.
Although the fate awaiting King is never far from our mind, Hall does not leave us on a note of despair. Instead, she suggests that there are no saints and no sinners in this world, just people blinded by the storm.
by Katori Hall
Through: April 7
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $23-$73, 650-463-1960. www.theatreworks.org