Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Director Ron Lagomarsino worked with these cast members a couple of summers back when this play was a part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia. The younger Birney was first aboard for Chester Bailey, while Reed had previously acted for Lagomarsino in a 1982 rendering of Hay Fever. Reed Birney, 66, has enjoyed a prolific career on stage and on screen. He won a Tony Award for his performance in The Humans in 2016 and had a significant part in television's "House of Cards." The 24-year-old Ephraim Birney recently starred in The Sound Inside for TheaterWorks Hartford. Each man appeared in TV's "The Americans."
Chester Bailey is situated within the confines of a Long Island hospital in 1945. During World War II, Chester was a riveter at the Navy Yards in Brooklyn. He suffered through and survived a horrific accident during which he lost his hands and sight while his hearing became dramatically impaired. A physician who introduces himself to Chester as the show opens has been asked to tend to the young man's disabling circumstances. Dr. Cotton, oftentimes irritated, wears a conservative, muted suit (Toni-Leslie James is costume designer). Chester is outfitted with well-worn apparel suited for bed.
Beowulf Boritt's spare set includes a bed, table and chair. The overall scene does, at times, evoke references to Penn Station which, during the midpoint of the twentieth century, was evidently equipped with steel beams above. The overall look assists with the stark but appropriate feel of the production.
Chester Bailey is, despite his disastrous condition, upbeat and nothing short of animated much of the time. He has invented, through delusion, a fantasy for himself with a seemingly genuine belief that, for example, he does have use of his hands. He dwells within scenarios he creates and speaks of often of a woman who attracts him. Ephraim persuades us that Chester is not a catastrophic predicament. The young man's performance is captivating.
Dr. Cotton, for much of the 90-minute running time, talks about himself and does not heed Chester until the concluding section of the performance. Instead, he elaborates upon his fixation and flirtation with a woman as he divulges particulars of his own life. He is anything but warm toward the afflicted younger man. Reed Birney's turn evidences skill, mastery of a role, and consummate control of character.
Playwright Dougherty incrementally probes beneath the surface to allow for some interface. Observers hoping for moment-to-moment exchange from the get-go will not find that early in Chester Bailey. Rather, each man exists in his own orbit so that the doctor and Bailey deliver mini-monologues oftentimes about separate selves.
This is a precise, impactful play even it unfolds unconventionally. It is important to stay with Dougherty's characters and their revealing stories. Each man frequently tunes out the other, staying with individual thoughts. The playwright is pushing for something beyond just that. One might leave the theater wondering if, perhaps, the implications are further reaching.
Chester Bailey runs through July 3, 2021, at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield MA. For tickets, call 413-236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.