April 4, 1968, Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.. The date and place are famous as the setting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
Playwright Katori Hall places her imaginative fictional play "The Mountaintop" here, on the night before the murder with an addled, edgy King at the center of her two- person drama at Capital Stage.
Hall's second character, Camae, a cagey and flirtatious young maid, makes the play an often-engaging but occasionally frustrating fantasia. Director Anthony D'Juan's polished production grounds the story in its characters' vulnerable humanity even when Hall's writing loses its footing.
Beethovan Oden's restless King has a bright, confident realism about him. Portraying a figure as familiar as King has numerous potential pitfalls, but Oden smartly creates a character we easily identify as the both famous civil rights leader and the mortal man tired of being on the road.
The actor successfully conveys King's human complexities, including instances when the civil rights activist isn't above a little "Don't you know who I am?"
Though a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Time magazine Man of Year, we meet King as a man who needs to take a leak and have a smoke. He's just delivered his prophetic "I've been to the mountaintop" speech in which he said, "I just want to do God's will And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you."
Hall uses this point to imagine King confronting his mortality. Through ZZ Moor's Camae, a motel maid who brings coffee and stays for a smoke and conversation, King realizes his time has come. Moor's honeyed Southern drawl as she croons "Dr. Kaaang" makes her compliments and criticisms of the leader's accomplishments and shortcomings feel like coquettish come-ons. Which they are.
The fascinating poignancy of the play's first half dilutes slightly in the second as playwright Hall reaches for profundity in her conclusion but comes up short. When Camae reveals who and what she really is and gives her mundane backstory, the play momentarily loses its lift. Hall's repartee often indulges in syrupy cuteness (at certain points you almost expect puppies to appear), but director D'Juan and his two actors bring the story back to its honest emotional core.
D'Juan has a diverse background in Sacramento-area theater, which he puts to fine use here. Early in his career he wrote and performed a series of one-man plays before teaching and directing for Ed Claudio's Actor's Theatre of Sacramento, where his students included the film actress Greta Gerwig. He has written for B Street Theatre's Family Series and California Musical Theatre's Martin Luther King Jr. Project.
D'Juan puts his experience on display as he skillfully exploits Jonathan Williams' meticulous motel room set, where the actors fill the space with their characters' humaneness and the larger-than-life story.
Three 1/2 stars
What: Anthony D'Juan directs Katori Hall's fictional account of Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night alive, when the civil rights leader encounters a provocative hotel maid.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: Performances continue at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 21
Information: (916) 995-5464 or www.capstage.org.
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Note: The play contains strong language and adult content Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.