‘Chester Bailey’ Starring Reed Birney and Ephraim Birney, a Must-See
Joseph Dougherty’s Chester Bailey is a mind-bending drama that tests our understanding of reality, as that which we apprehend with our senses. Taken to its extreme form, those whose senses have been deprived cannot know what reality is and must rely on others to interpret “the reality” of what is around them. However, what happens if they refuse to accept any interpretations and come up with their own? Who gets to interpret what reality is, if the interpretation is repugnant and an encouragement toward self-destruction?
These delicious questions lead to the conundrum that Dr. Philip Cotton (Reed Birney), must resolve as he treats his patient Chester Bailey (Ephraim Birney), who is in a hospital on Long Island in 1945 during the winding down of WW II. Bailey was prevented from going to war by his parents who selfishly wanted to keep their son safe, a notion that Bailey tells us he agreed with so he didn’t rebel against their wishes and enlist.
However, Karma, Fate the Furies spin the family around and have fun with them, proving there is no escape from tragedy. Yet, if we throw caution to the winds and accept what comes, goodness may be around the corner. Perhaps Chester should have enlisted after all. His family and Bailey rue that he didn’t.
Bailey ends up in the psychiatric care of Dr. Philip Cotton after he experiences a traumatic accident at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A psychotic worker attacks him with a blow torch putting out his eyes, slashing his ear, savaging his face and severing his hands. After defying death, Chester rehabilitates getting through unaccountable pain with the help of huge doses of morphine that foster his dislocation from reality to a place of comfort, and not only physical comfort.
In that haven, he constructs another reality where he believes that he lost his ear and eyesight, but the latter is returning because he sees a bright light that appears to be getting brighter. Furthermore, he “knows” he still has use of his hands and can pick up objects, all despite arguments with the doctors at the general hospital where he’s recovering, who tell him he has no eyes, no hands, one ear and his face is deformed. Indeed, Ephraim Birney’s portrayal of Chester’s believable reconstruction of a world of peace and beauty, where he is becoming whole is sensational. And Birney’s development of Chester’s obstinance and obstruction of anyone who attempts to wrangle his fantasy from him is beyond superb.
Though Chester tells us he receives visits from his father, who tries to encourage him despite his growing alcoholism, his mother refuses to see him. Ephraim Birney’s narration is riveting. Through it we intuit that his mother is overwhelmed by guilt. Smacked by Karma at her selfish attempt to save her son from dying, while other mothers lost their sons, she refuses to visit him and is bedridden with severe depression.
Meanwhile, Birney’s Chester is enthusiastic about seeing shapes and shadows, feeling his fingers and picking up objects. The doctors deem him delusional. Because of Chester’s prognosis, they cannot release him back into society where he will only get worse. Instead, they transfer him to a psychiatric hospital, where he will receive therapy to perhaps encourage him back to the society’s consensus of reality. There he will be forced to accept his condition and receive help to achieve a purposeful life.
Parallel to Chester Bailey’s “delusion” is Dr. Philip Cotton’s response to Bailey. Steeped in partial delusions, we understand that Cotton bends reality toward his own perspective. We discover how both men are two different sides of the same coin from the top of the play, when Dougherty has each man in solo performance introduce themselves when Dr. Philip Cotton meets Chester for the first time in the Long Island psychiatric hospital.
From there time shifts in a flashback to the point before Chester’s accident in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Through an interlocking web of solo moments addressed to the audience, we discover who these men are and their approach toward their lives, which in actuality isn’t that much different.
Reed Birney is absolutely sensational in his quiet, unspooling of himself as Dr. Cotton who ironically is dislocated from his marriage when he works in Washington, D.C. Birney’s narration of events is engaging and smooth. Alternating with Chester, who discusses his life in parallel themes, Cotton tells us when he was in Washington, D.C. working, his wife had an affair. Its revelation explodes their marriage when he transfers to the Long Island hospital and moves to New York. In fear of discovery, her lover demands that she tell Cotton the truth. Cotton and his wife get a divorce.
Obtusely moving through his life, Birney’s Cotton doesn’t pick up the signs or even understand why and how his wife could betray him. Instead of learning from this emotional devastation to himself, their daughter and his former wife, he engages in an affair with Cora, his bosses’ wife and wraps himself in her to the point that she becomes his life. Indeed, he lives for the times they covertly meet in various, sleazy, hot pillow motels around the Island.
The beauty of his performance is Birney’s authenticity in portraying Cotton, whose serene and calm self-satisfaction covers up his own delusions about himself and his divorce which he accepts without seeking therapy before or after. His escapism into his affair with Cora conveniently runs him far away from self-analysis or introspection.
Additionally, Birney’s performance is magnificent in its subtly. Cotton manufactures his intent to help Chester Bailey “face” reality so Chester can “better” live his life and adjust to his deformities. In relaying his behavior with Bailey as he interacts with him and reveals his final kindness to him, we are duped by his laid-back good-natured care. Completely taken by his apparent concern for his patient and his romantic interpretations, we ignore why he bestows magnanimity on Chester at the play’s conclusion.
However if one considers the ramifications of what Birney’s Dr. Cotton does when he ignores the truth of what occurs in the hospital, Cotton’s behavior can also be interpreted as permissive and incredibly destructive. Nevertheless, Birney’s Cotton, who is deluded himself and swept up into going beyond his role as a professional, treats Bailey as he, himself, wishes to be treated.
Ironically, Cotton’s interpretation of Chester as an artist of the imagination absolves himself and Bailey of the truth, pushing away the results as if there are no consequences or probabilities of harm. Ignoring his own behavior in accepting Bailey’s behaviors and converting them into harmless obfuscations, he entraps them both in fantasy. Defining Bailey’s actions as self-mercy, Birney’s Cotton removes his own accountability from the situation and demeans Bailey by not challenging him to evolve beyond a “merciful” delusion. The question becomes how merciful is this delusion? And indeed, are delusions merciful?
Engaged and enthralled by the Ephraim and Reed Birney’s portrayals of these intricate and complicated characters, we, too, are swept up in the romance and artistry that Bailey weaves and Cotton accepts and encourages. So what if these flights of imagination have a dark underbelly that perhaps is dangerously dismissed?
We ask, if someone’s life is so physically decimated as Chester’s life is, then what is the harm of his imagining that the woman he saw selling paper and candy in a shop in Penn Station (the beautiful old station intimated with John Lee Beatty’s scenic design and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design), has become a nurse who visits him? What is the harm if he imagines it is she who has sex with him in his hospital bed late at night and not someone else who has severe problems? He is in love with her, a person he fashions in his imagination. Isn’t that what love is? When we love, don’t we project onto others the beauty and artistry of ourselves? Isn’t that what Dr. Cotton does with Cora? Aren’t we in love with the product of our own imaginations?
Indeed. Of course, there is more to what Doughtery unravels in this rich, dynamically threaded philosophical, psychological work, beautifully shepherded by director Ron Lagomarsino and acted with perfection by father and son duo Reed Birney and Ephraim Birney. Chester Bailey asks so many questions and resolves none of them which makes for a great play that is profoundly rich with thematic gravitas that is resonant for our time.
The production is gobsmacking, helped by Toni-Leslie James’ costume design and Brendan Aanes’ sound design. Performances have been extended because they should be. This outstanding work is its New York Premiere at Irish Repertory Theatre. For tickets and times go to their website. You’ll be happy you saw this amazing, moving play. https://irishrep.org/
Posted on October 25, 2022, in Irish Repertory Theatre, Off Broadway and tagged Chester Bailey, Ephraim Birney, Irish Rep, Irish Repertory Theatre, Joseph Dougherty, Reed Birney, Ron Lagomarsino. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.