“Chester Bailey” Lures You Back to The Theater with Stellar Production
There are many points of entrance to the Boyd/Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage to take your seats for the first performance in the theater since the fall of 2019. The stage is lit duskily and the furniture (hospital bed, end table, office chair, bench…) starkly stands out in contrast, being bright white. There are a series of receding arches that have a tunnel effect as if the set is in the foreground called forth from a distant past. There’s boogie-woogie swing music playing softly in the house and you are called back to the setting of 1944.
“Chester Bailey” by Joseph Daugherty is in some ways a throw-back, a psychological procedural if you will. Dr. Philip Cotton (Tony Winner Reed Birney) has been transferred in 1945 to Walt Whitman Hospital on Long Island and he inherits a caseload which includes a young patient named Chester Bailey (Ephraim Birney, Reed’s son). Chester was serving in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1944 and he was attacked by a co-worker with an acetylene torch that lopped off his hands, penetrated his right ear, and slashed across his eyes leaving him handless, blind and deaf in one ear. Chester though acts as if he has hands and can see perfectly well. Dr. Cotton describes it as auto-sympathetic adjustment and marvels at the young man’s powers of imagination that compensate for all he is missing. Is it all that’s transpired in the last few years that makes this plot point of a character’s refusal to believe his own senses easy for me to accept?
Dougherty is a masterful storyteller and there are numerous tales he gives the two actors to address the audience that builds around the central relationship. Dr. Cotton himself has a troubled time with facing up to the truth of who you are, as he is conducting an affair with the hospital administrator’s wife. The tension of the play comes out of the young man’s assertion of his wholeness and the doctor ministering to his charge by forcibly exposing him to the truth. There’s a playfulness involved in this but more than that, and agonizing for most of us, there’s a powerful seduction to let delusion stand and even flourish.
Ephraim Birney reaches out with his right arm from his hospital bed in the opening moments of the play and he never lets us go. He’s got a wide-open guilelessness essential to the part, speaks with a Dead End kid’s defensiveness, and explodes when necessary with heart-rending immediacy. Unlike the condition he is described to be saddled with, his movements are free, impulsive, and bounding. It feels like a great privilege to see this talented young man play this reconciliation story with his father.
Reed Birney is a towering, supremely accomplished actor who effortlessly guides us through this gripping story and his troubled character’s place in it. I especially liked his physical responses to the stories he was describing like the way he shirked his shoulders with embarrassment when meeting his lover Cora at the bar or his gentle walk across his patient’s room in an effort to catch Chester out. His attentive, loving treatment of his patient in all the permutations it takes form the heart of the play and it is priceless.
Barrington Stage has given this tale of treatment and recovery all of the technical artistry you’ve been missing for the past year and a half. The first five minutes of the play directed by Ron Lagormarsino are a triumph of stagecraft that you haven’t seen under a tent or streaming. Nothing much happens; the actors enter superbly costumed (that windowpane plaid suit!), the music transitions from the house to the onstage radio, the lights shift and isolate the actors and light up the windows of the psychiatric hospital (and later the creation of Penn Station simply with lights on the Stage Right wall!) but I was deeply appreciative of these simple cues after so much time away. Sets by Beowulf Boritt (Tony Winner for “Act One”), lights by Peter Kaczorowski, costumes by Toni-Leslie James and sound by Brendan Aanes.
“Chester Bailey” at BSC is a powerfully seductive story, expertly told, that delights your senses with its superb stagecraft. It will recruit you to Dr. Cotton’s appreciation and awe of the imaginative powers.
Through 7/3. Tickets available at barringtonstageco.org