His last night on Earth

A review of “The Mountaintop,” now playing at the Hippodrome Theater.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stumbles out of a stormy Memphis night and into room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.

Horse and coughing from his day’s exhortations, he craves a Pall Mall. And before bed he wants to work out just how to tell America that it’s going to hell.

“They’re really going to burn me on the cross for that one,” he mumbles.

Then there is a knock on his door.

The long wait is over, Gainesville.

The pandemic that threw the local theater scene into interminable paralysis is easing up. And the curtains are beginning to rise again.

Albeit with all precautions being observed, including mandatory masking and lots of empty seats for social distancing purposes.

And credit the Hippodrome for kicking off its long awaited season with a flash of lightening, a roar of thunder…and a stunner of a play about an extraordinary man abruptly and unexpectedly obliged to reckon with his own destiny.

“The Mountaintop,” is Katori Hall’s one act, two-actor play that imagine’s Dr. King’s last night on Earth. And is it Hall’s genius that “Mountaintop” can so effortlessly move from the silly to the sublime to the surreal and back again – often before the audience even notices the shift.

But back to that door knock.

Enter Camae, dressed in a maid’s uniform and bearing cigarettes, coffee and a pocket flask of whisky (“Irish coughing syrup.”).

An innocent flirtation? A set up?

Whatever, King is in a mood and welcomes the distraction.

And Camae (don’t even try to pronounce it on your own) has a few things she wants to tell him about his particular brand of nonviolent activism.

“Civil rights will kill you before the Pall Malls,” she says.

He thinks she’s kidding.

Chaz Rose is pitch perfect as King. He’s got the rhythm, he’s got the cadence, he’s got the passion. He’s also got that sinner’s sense of humor and rascal’s endearing charm that helped fuel the rumors and speculation that dogged King wherever he went.

”You smoke like a man,” King chides Camae.

“You smoke like a fruit,” she shoots back, to his chagrin.

DeShawn White is nobody’s shrinking violet as Camae. She is sassy and irreverent. She will not stand in King’s shadow. And for all Rose’s stage presence, White steals the show when she dons the great man’s suit coat and smelly shoes (don’t ask) and hops up on the bed to deliver a dead-on rendition of vintage King…only with considerably more bite.

All of this dalliance plays out before “Mountaintop” takes a turn to the deadly serious.

I’m not going to ruin your evening by spilling what comes next. Suffice it to say that what seemed to start out as a classic bedroom farce suddenly becomes an otherworldly experience that may send chills down your spine before the final bows.

“Fear has become my companion,” King confesses to his unexpected mother confessor. “I love her.”

And there is much to love about “The Mountaintop” as well.

“The Mountaintop” plays through November 7. For ticket information go to thehipp.org.

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