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"The Mountaintop" Spins Fantasia on Martin Luther King, Jr.

‘THE MOUNTAINTOP’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through Oct. 13

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis

Tickets: $45-$65

Info: (773) 753-4472; www.CourtTheatre.org

Run time: 100 minutes with no intermission

The time is the evening of April 3, 1968. The place is Room #306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The guest is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And the weather is appropriately stormy.

And who is that knocking on the door at the start of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” the play that unfolds in this room, and is now receiving its Chicago debut at Court Theatre?

No, it is not King’s most trusted colleague in the Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who King (David Alan Anderson) sent to buy the cigarettes he smoked only when out of the public spotlight. It is Camae (Lisa Beasley), the attractive young motel maid, dressed in a crisp yellow uniform and white apron. Provocative, uncensored and generally unimpressed and unintimidated by King, she has arrived with the coffee he ordered. And she does not leave quickly.

As it turns out, Camae is everything (and far more) than she appears to be. And it is no accident that she has arrived just days after King, who is planning to launch a Poor People’s Campaign, lent his support to the city’s striking black sanitation workers, and delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, with all its intimations of mortality.

Of course the encounter between Camae, and an anxious, exhausted, self-doubting, guilt-ridden, narcissistic, justifiably paranoid 39-year-old King, occurs on the evening before he would be gunned down by James Earl Ray while standing on the motel balcony.

So there you have it — the essential premise of Hall’s construct of a play that some might find objectionable for its playful debunking of a uniquely influential, history-altering leader, while others might applaud for its bluntly humanizing portrait of a larger-than-life yet flawed human being. The crucial thing to remember here is that “The Mountaintop” is no documentary. Rather, it is a full-blown (and sharply feminist-oriented) fantasia. It can be heavyhanded, but it also can be greatly entertaining.

It is best not to give away too much about how Hall’s play (already produced in London and on Broadway) evolves. What can be said is that Camae quickly beguiles King (whose womanizing is no secret). She then proceeds to challenge him, at one point even donning his jacket and shoes, climbing atop his bed, and preaching a raucous sermon that brings down the house. Later she reminds King that future generations will have to carry on with his work. (A mention of Jesse Jackson as the next torch-bearer elicits a sardonic response from King and, at the performance I attended, loud laughter from the audience.)

Under the winning direction of Ron OJ Parson (who is on a tear this season, with a blistering revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” now at TimeLine Theatre, and “Detroit ‘67” opening at Northlight in November), the two actors create just the right chemistry. Anderson, whose body type neatly resembles King’s, never succumbs to imitation, and sustains the sense of panic and unease of a man clearly haunted by death threats. And Beasley (who has worked often at both the Black Ensemble Theatre and the eta Creative Arts Foundation), is sensational — at once fierce, funny and unpredictable.

Scott Davis’ motel room set is spot-on (the Lorraine is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum). And Mike Tutaj’s rapidfire, grand- scale video finale brilliantly updates racial history since that fateful day in 1968.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic