Craig Alan Edwards in The Man in Room 306
(© Pier Baccaro)
Craig Alan Edwards in The Man in Room 306
(© Pier Baccaro)
Murdered at the age of 39, Martin Luther King, Jr. now has a stature that borders on sainthood. Before the man disappears almost entirely into myth, some playwrights are trying to capture Dr. King's greatness while going to great pains to ground him with feet of clay and thereby reclaim him as a human being. The latest, albeit less-than successful, attempt to paint Dr. King as a kind of regular guy is Craig Alan Edwards' solo piece The Man in Room 306, now at 59E59 Theaters.

The play takes place on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee in The Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King would step out on the balcony and die from bullets shot from an assassin's rifle. The show begins with the sound and fury of a thunderstorm outside the hotel room's window, which awakens Dr. King (played by Edwards) from an unintended nap.

Almost immediately, the phone begins to ring. Quickly, we learn through the phone conversation that the Civil Rights movement, led by Dr. King, is in crisis. His non-violent movement is showing signs of cracking during this effort to help the sanitation strikers in Memphis. In fact, Dr. King, himself, seems to be falling apart as the piece segues from a traditional play format to the breaking of the fourth wall when King starts talking to us directly. It does not help matters that this transition is anything but smooth.

In the course of 90 minutes, Dr. King's achievements are, with some notable exceptions, taken for granted. Instead, we are shown a man with a sexist attitude toward women, consumed with childish pranks, and most surprisingly, displaying a stunning lack of self-possession. It may be one thing to present Dr. King as a man with doubts, but quite another to depict him as a man incapable of leadership. Indeed, the man we see in the hotel room does not add up to the man who leaves that room to deliver the brilliant and haunting final speech of his life in Memphis later that night.

The play is at its strongest when it helps us understand the young Martin's relationship to his own famous preacher father. The moment when Martin Luther King, Sr. toasts his now even more famous son on the eve of Dr. King winning the Nobel Peace Prize is a well-earned piece of theater. But the play too rarely reaches those heights.

In fact, the most impressive thing about The Man in Room 306 is Room 306 itself, as designed by Charlie Corcoran. The neon sign advertising The Lorraine Hotel shines outside the window and the carefully detailed interior of the room, complete with rotary phone and plastic décor, neatly establishes the time period of the play.

Director Cheryl Katz allows Edwards to overact to an egregious degree. Of course, some may see this sort of overwrought declaiming as acting with a capital "A." But what would be far more persuasive would be a play and a performance that doesn't so much undermine Dr. King's iconography as help us understand the man that became worthy of it.