James T. Alfred as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Erika LaVonn as Camae bring a passionate and realistic tone to Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop.” The play is one of three by women that ATC has produced since the 2010-11 season.

Photo by Tim Fuller

“The Mountaintop” must be seen.

Arizona Theatre Company’s production of the Katori Hall play, which won raves and awards in London and faltered when it moved to Broadway, opened Friday.

Like its subject, Martin Luther King Jr., it is not perfect, but it is powerful.

Lou Bellamy directed this riveting, often humorous, piece with passion and precision. “The Mountaintop” is a co-production with St. Paul, Minnesota’s Penumbra Theatre Company, which Bellamy founded.

The playwright has imagined what King’s last night on Earth was like. The scene is Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, a remarkably dull room with orange bedspreads and matching curtains. Outside the window, we see the neon sign of the motel (kudos to scene designer Vicki Smith for bringing us there).

King is alone, having sent his associate out for cigarettes. In the first few moments of the play, we see this person we know as a blazing orator and determined civil rights worker as just a man. He pees, his feet stink, his socks have holes in them, and he is deathly afraid of the thunder that crackles through the night. (Sound designer Martin Gwinup creates thunder that is menacing, loud and convincing.)

King orders coffee, and when the maid delivers it, he becomes a smooth talker, a flirt, a man with humor and insecurities.

The maid, Camae, has more than coffee in mind when she enters his room. She questions him, curses, tells him that meeting hate with peaceful marches just isn’t cutting it, offers him comfort and challenges him.

James T. Alfred and Erika LaVonn take on the roles of King and Camae with a feverish commitment. Alfred has captured King’s cadence and spellbinding oratorical skills. But he has also shaped a character with painfully raw emotions.

LaVonn’s Camae is gorgeous, sassy and has her own knack for powerful oratory.

The two move this play, and the audience.

A little more than halfway through the 90-minute production, magical realism steps in and takes the audience in a whole, unexpected direction.

It’s one of the flaws of the play — it feels more like a device than an organic turn in the story. It tries too hard. The same is true for a powerful photo montage toward the end. And while the script has some brilliance in it, it’s also self-consciously clever at times.

But here’s the thing — it soars more often than not. It revisits King’s hopes, and his despairs — those warrant remembering, examining and reflecting on.

It’s impossible to walk out of this one act without being deeply moved. And deeply disturbed — not just because a great man died, but that the promised land mentioned in the famous speech the night before his death is still a hard, hard climb for so many.

Contact reviewer Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.