“I’m just a man,” sighs Martin Luther King Jr. several times in Katori Hall’s two-character, 2010 Olivier Award-winning one-act, “The Mountaintop,” a regional premiere now at TheatreWorks.
Indeed he is in this altogether funny, thought-provoking and poignant play. Depicted with convincing charm and inner turmoil by Adrian Roberts, he cusses, apparently cheats on his wife, smokes, and has stinky feet and a hole in his sock.
But he’s a good and sincere man driven to near distraction by a mission, and playwright Hall expands that notion in a variety of imaginative ways. Anthony J. Haney meets her challenges with a vivid directorial imagination of his own.
It’s the night before King’s assassination, April 3, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel. (Eric Sinkkonen designed the excellent set, a generic motel room contrasted with surreal elements seen through the window.)
King has just delivered his famous — and, as we now know, prescient — “I Have Seen the Mountaintop” speech, in which he declares, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. ... but I’m not concerned about that now .... I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.”
He’s exhausted, has a cough, nervously jumps at every clap of thunder (dramatically effective sound design by Gregory Robinson) and is even, as he later declares, bored. But needing to work on his next speech, he rings room service for coffee.
It is delivered by a pretty motel maid, Camae (a captivating Simone Missick), who appears thrilled at serving the great preacher. She’s saucy and outspoken, and when she offers a Pall Mall from her apron pocket to the dying-for-a-smoke King, plus a nip from her whiskey flask, barriers tumble down.
King is quick to flirt and joke with the playful maid and, as the evening goes on, to unburden his troubled soul.
For her part, Camae is entirely up to arguing politics, strategy and theology (she refers to God as “she”) with him, as well as teasing him and challenging his prejudices and deepest convictions. “Walkin’ will only get you so far,” she insists, of his famous marches. She’s impatient for civil-rights progress and is more of a Malcolm X fan.
“The Mountaintop” does grow a bit repetitive toward the end, but no matter: It’s graced with a dynamic finale, is full of surprises and is deeply affecting.
Presented by TheatreWorks
- Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto
- When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 31
- Tickets: $23 to $73
- Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org