Real father and son Reed and Ephraim Birney star in Barrington Stage Company’s “Chester Bailey”. Photo: David Dashiell
Rarely do regional theaters, especially those seasonally oriented, produce a Broadway class production that is ready, as is, to be moved to New York, but so does the exemplary presentation of “Chester Bailey” by Joseph Dougherty. by Barrington Stage. All the elements – a compelling narrative, beautifully composed language, stellar performances and most sensitive sets, lighting and sound design – combine in seamless harmony. “Chester Bailey” is the best drama I’ve seen anywhere – regionally, on Broadway, or Off – for a long, long time, and that rules out the dark days of the pandemic theater.
Indeed, in the era of COVID, the story – about the relationship between a young man, Chester Bailey, who survives a catastrophic injury and his psychiatrist, Dr. Philip Cotton – puts life in perspective, contrasting the worst circumstances. most tragic of a patient confined to a mental institution with the comparatively insignificant life challenges of his therapist. With Dougherty’s beautifully textured and richly visual script – impeccably paced by director Ron Lagomarsino (who helmed the play’s first production in San Francisco in 2016 – “Chester Bailey” transcends a searing parable of truth and illusion. , imagination and memory, and reality and survival.
Tony Award winner Reed Birney plays the doctor and Ephraim Birney, his 24-year-old son, the main character in one of the best two-handed performances in memory. The year is 1945. Bailey loses sight, both hands and an ear in an abnormal attack by a fellow riveter at work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Chester’s father, at his mother’s insistence, had secured wartime work for their son so that he could avoid active service. Guilt invades the family after the near-death accident. Dr Cotton’s marriage ends in divorce and he continues an affair with the wife of the chief of staff at the mental hospital.
Dougherty poses this whole exhibition between monologues that oscillate between the two characters. When they have a dialogue – over a third of the 90-minute piece – the conflict is clear. Bailey is delusional. He believes he can see – “I am do not blind, ”he proclaims – and has functioning hands. He’s obsessed with a young woman he ran into at Penn Station before his accident. Dr Cotton seeks to bring him back to the reality of his condition. Bailey resists, existing in his own fantasy world. Fairly Revealed: Dougherty’s educated and suspenseful plot leads the Doctor to an unexpected and piercing reconciliation of his own reality and Bailey’s imagination.
There isn’t a wasted minute or a wrong note in Dougherty’s script. Her handwriting is so richly textured, one can imagine Bailey’s parents, Dr. Cotton’s family, the young woman Bailey loves, the hospital staff. Doughtery’s words are precisely, graphically descriptive, whether ugly or beautiful: Dr Cotton reads the medical report of Chester’s attack (“… the exploding eyeball”), or Chester describing what his love is. wore (“a red and gold design of a bird on the front of her blouse… sort of Chinese… the bird’s tail wrapped around her left breast”).
A parallel sensitivity informs every detail of the production. Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt (Barrington Stage’s “On the Town” and “Pirates of Penzance”) creates an institutional framework of black steel arches (obliquely reminiscent of how Bailey describes both the ship’s keel and it was attacked and the cavernous structure of Penn Station) with dark panes, tall prison-like windows, the ensemble lightly accented with white antiseptic hospital furniture. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design diffuses cold daylight into Bailey’s cloister room; Later, Bailey is bathed in a luscious purple glow when he fantasizes a Coney Island date with his sweetheart. Brendan Aanes’ sound design echoes Bailey’s tragedy; to open the room, a big band tune from the 1940s turns into an almost surreal dissonance. A superb staging corresponds to this superb drama.