CHESTER — Playwright Katori Hall imagines a very human Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the night before his assassination in "The Mountaintop," an overwrought, overthought, overimagined two-character play that is having its regional premiere at Chester Theatre Company in a production that nearly transcends the material.
It is rain-soaked evening and a weary Dr. King (Jordan Mahome in a plaintive-toned, effortful performance) has come back to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis following a rally in support of striking sanitation workers. He has a speech to work on for another rally the next day. He has sent his closest friend and ally, The Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, on a mission to bring back a pack of cigarettes. While he is waiting, he orders a cup of coffee from room service, which is delivered by an idiosyncratic chamber maid named Camae (a likable and engaging Shelley Fort) who, as the play unfolds, turns out to be more, much more, than she appears.
The give and take between them is casual, flirtatious, profound in ways that are at once personal and cosmic. It is no whim of choice that leads Hall to shift from realism to magic realism as "The Mountaintop" moves to a conclusion that is grandiose and pretentious; magic, perhaps, but without authentic awe or wonder. I don't believe in spoiler alerts, so I will stop there. Suffice to say that by the time this evening has run its course, Dr. King will have come face-to-face with a full reckoning of his life, his dreams, his ambitions, his vision of what America can and should be.
As things work out, particularly in this production, Hall, Mahome and director Colette Roberts' "human" Dr. King is less compelling than the public Dr. King and far less engaging than Camae, for whom Dr. King turns out to be no match as he is forced by circumstance to inventory his life and the work that remains to be done.
Fort's appealing performance as Camae is almost enough to single-handedly overcome the play's shortcomings and artifices (including one sequence, a phone call, that, even by the broad boundaries and conventions of magic realism, defines ludicrous). Almost. In its steady, uninvolving, even-handed clip, this "Mountaintop" feels more like a plateau.
What: "The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall. Directed by Colette Roberts
With: Jordan Mahome, Shelley Fort
Who: Chester Theatre Company
Where: Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester
When: Closes Aug. 28. Evenings — Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 2
Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $37.50; Chester resident and student rush — $10
How: 1-800-595-4849; chestertheatre.org