The view is grand from "The Mountaintop."
The StageWorks Fresno production of Katori Hall's provocative play about the imagined last night of Martin Luther King Jr. is deftly staged and strongly acted. Director Joel C. Abels crafts a powerhouse production that manages to seem both taut and dreamy — a charismatic and combustible combination.
It's tricky to write about "The Mountaintop" because it's one of those plays that, frankly, works better the less you know about it. (When New York Times critic Ben Brantley reviewed the show in 2011, he noted that the production's press representatives requested that he not divulge certain key plot details.) But there are some essentials to know going in: The action takes place on the evening of April 3, 1968, in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. On the next day, King was assassinated on the motel's balcony.
Hall's take on what happened on that last night of his life comes purely from her literary imagination. In this two-person drama, she invents the character of Camae, a maid at the motel. Camae knocks on King's door with room service after a long day for him in which he gave his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech. What follows — their conversation and the events that unfold on a strange and stormy night — is pure conjecture.
But enough is grounded in what we know about King — his formidable strengths and all-too-human weaknesses — to give the experience a fly-on-the-wall authenticity.
Star tony sanders (who does not capitalize his name) gives a sturdy and accomplished performance as King, finding in his character's dialogue a stirring cadence and hearty, flirtatious sense of humor. (The Fresno-based sanders is a member of Actors Equity.) He offers more than just a surface impression of a famous icon — it's deeper than that, as if you can feel the weariness in King's bones.
Camille Gaston, as Camae, is simply thrilling. Her performance is rich, textured and vulnerable. And often achingly funny. For this talented local actress, a mainstay at Good Company Players and StageWorks Fresno, it's a breakthrough performance.
Abels' crisp direction and a first-rate production design give the show an added spark. The motel-room set (by Abels and Mark Reidel) projects a wonderful period authenticity, right down to the tired Mid Century Modern tiered end tables. Jennifer Sullivan's precise lighting design is an integral part of the action's mood swings, and Regina Harris' nuanced sound design, steeping us in rain and thunder, helps us feel as if we're ensconced in a strange yet cozy space.
Indeed, there's a cocoon-like feel to the production, a sense of security and self-containment, that bolsters the production's impact.
And what of the broader picture of "The Mountaintop"? In charting this fanciful King tale, Hall works hard to move from the specific to the general in terms of race relations in this country. I think this transition, very late in the play, is a weakness. We lose some of the storyline's audaciously original momentum as we're led in an inspirational yet expected direction.
But overall, it's a powerful and triumphant play. "The Mountaintop" is well worth the climb. And you'd better put those hiking boots on soon — there are only four performances remaining (Friday through Sunday) at the Dan Pessano Theatre.
"The Mountaintop," 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2; 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 3; Dan Pessano Theatre (on the campus of Clovis North High School), 2770 E. International Ave. www.stageworksfresno.com, (559) 289-6622. $16.50-$21.50.