CHESTER BAILEY - SUPERB DRAMA
Rarely do dramatic productions of regional theaters, particularly those with a seasonal focus, produce a Broadway-class production that is ready as-is to transfer to New York, but such is the case with Barrington Stage’s exemplar presentation of Joseph Doughertry’s “Chester Bailey". All the elements - a riveting narrative, beautifully composed language, stellar performances, and most sensitive scenery, lighting and sound design - combine in seamless harmony. “Chester Bailey” is the best piece of drama I have seen anywhere - regionally, on Broadway or Off - in a long, long time, and that’s excluding the dark theater days of the pandemic.
Indeed, coming in the Age of Covid, the tale - about the relationship between a young man, Chester Bailey who is surviving catastrophic injury and his psychiatrist, Dr. Philip Cotton - puts life in perspective, contrasting the most tragic circumstances of a patient confined to a mental institution with the comparatively trivial life challenges of his therapist. With Dougherty’s beautifully textured and richly visual script - impeccably paced by director Ron Lagomarsino (who directed the premiere production of the play in San Francisco in 2016) - “Chester Bailey” transcendently renders a seering parable about truth and delusion, imagination and memory, and reality and survival.
Tony Award winner Reed Birney plays the doctor and Ephraim Birney, his 24 year -old son, the title character in one of the best two-hander performances in memory. It’s 1945. Bailey loses his sight, both hands, and an ear in a freak attack by a fellow riveter at work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Chester’s father, at his mother’s insistence, had secured the wartime job for their son so he could avoid active service. Guilt pervades the family after the near-death accident. Dr. Cotton’s marriage ends in divorce, and he pursues an affair with the wife of the chief of staff at the psychiatric hospital.
Dougherty lays down all this exposition between monologues that shift between the two characters. When they do have dialogue - more than a third of the way through the 90 minute play - the conflict is clear. Bailey is delusional. He believes he can see (“I am NOT blind” he proclaims) and has hands that work. He is obsessed with a young woman he fleetingly met in Penn Station before his accident. Dr. Cotton seeks to return him to the reality of his condition. Bailey resists, existing in his own imagined world. Enough revealed: Dougherty’s taught, suspenseful plotting brings the doctor to an unexpected, piercing reconciliation of his own reality and Bailey's imagination.
There’s not one wasted minute or false note in Dougherty’s script. His writing is so richly textured, one can picture Bailey's parents, Dr. Cotton’s family, the young woman whom Bailey loves, the hospital staff. Doughtery’s words are precisely, graphically descriptive, whether ugly or beautiful: Dr. Cotton reading the medical report of the attack on Chester (“... the eyeball exploding”), or Chester describing what his love wore (“a red and gold design of a bird on the front of her blouse…sort of Chinese … the tail of the bird curled down, around her left breast’).
A parallel sensitivity informs every production detail. Tony Award winning scenic designer Beowulf Borritt (no stranger to Barrington Stage - “On the Town” and “Pirates of Penzance”) creates an institutional setting of black steel arches (that recalls obliquely how Bailey describes both the keel of the ship where he was attacked and the cavernous structure of Penn Station) with dark tile, tall jail-like windows, the set sparsely accented with white antiseptic hospital furnishings. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design spills cold daylight into Bailey’s cloistered room: later, Bailey is bathed in a lucious purple glow fantasizing a date at Coney Island with his love. Brendan Annes’ sound design echoes Bailey’s tragedy: to open the play, a 1940’s big band tune morphs into an almost surreal dissonance. Superb staging matches this superb drama.