Katori Hall's The Mountaintop is set in entirely in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The fateful balcony is unseen. The furnishings are sparse—a bed, a lone chair and a table big enough for an ashtray. Through windows flash the bursts of intermittent lightning foreshadowing the next day and the many, many years of mourning ahead. There's a heavy presence of anxiety.
Yet the achievement of Hall's play, currently occupying the Lyceum Space in a San Diego Repertory Theatre production directed by Roger Guenveur Smith, is how it shows us not King the martyr-to-be, but King the man. This MLK, portrayed with a mixture of honest weariness and fire by Larry Bates, is as human as any of the Lorraine Motel room-renters. He smokes too much. His dinner is coffee. He flirts shamelessly with the fetching and sharp-tongued motel maid, Camae (Danielle Mone Truitt). The King we see is full of passion for God and for justice, but he's neither sanctimonious nor indefectible. King wants all men to live as one and to live free—himself included. He doesn't want to die, a martyr or otherwise, in spite of his devotion to God. When Camae turns out to be someone very different than a motel maid, King must confront his own fears and truths.
With Camae's revelation comes a broader, stagy shift in the proceedings. A bouncing-on-the-bed pillow fight and a desperate King talking on a heavenly cell phone to The Woman Upstairs are two of the devices that strain the narrative. A potent ending, however, in which King, having accepted his fate, is shown (via projection screen) the future of the world after his death, allows The Mountaintop to end with grace and intelligence.
Truitt works hard for and earns plenty of laughs as Camae, part one, but it's Bates as King who climbs the mountain and makes us feel each exhaustive and resolute foot upward. His oratory moments are evocative of King, but not attempted imitations, which is to be commended. So is playwright Hall, for showing us the view—bright and tragic—from on high.
The Mountaintop runs through March 31 at the Lyceum Theatre, Downtown. $31 to $52. sdrep.org
Assassins: A carnival shooting gallery is the starting point for a musical about nine killers or would-be-killers of U.S. presidents. Presented by Cygnet Theatre, it opens March 14 at The Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.com
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday: A man can't seem to get over the loss of his wife, who accidentally drowned. Now he's talking with her during nighttime beach walks and neglecting his daughter. Opens March 15 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
Willy Wonka: A boy wins a contest, takes his gramps on a tour of a spectacular chocolate factory and realizes what's really important. Presented by Pickwick Players, it runs through March 16 at C3 Performing Arts Center in Grantville. pickwickplayers.net
South Pacific: Love blossoms for two couples amid racial prejudice and World War II in this classic musical. Runs through March 17 at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido. welktheatres.com
Time Stands Still: A couple—she a war photojournalist, he a war reporter—return from Iraq after she's injured and face a less-exhilarating future together. Through March 17 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
The Mountaintop: In a fictional version of events, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spends his last night among the living in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it runs through March 31 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sdrep.org
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder: In this musical comedy set in Edwardian England, a man in need of treasure to win the love of a woman learns he's a distant heir to a fortune and begins murdering his way to the top of the family food chain. Through April 14 on The Old Globe Theatre's Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net