SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. VA., July 15, 2019 — In our previous review of Antonio’s Song, we discussed the first of two CATF 2019 plays that exemplify Studio 112 magic. It seems to be a regular feature of each year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, now ongoing in this picturesque college town on the banks of the Potomac in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. In the intimate space of Studio 112, intellectually challenging and thoughtful place seem to materialize every year. This season’s second Studio 112 production, Joseph Dougherty’s Chester Bailey provides a far bleaker outlook on the pageant of life than Antonio.
Chester Bailey: Reality may be where you find it. Or imagine it.
Yet, Chester Bailey, too, in its own strange way offers a cautiously hopeful outlook on life. But it’s one that’s based on a painfully different plane of reality.
Structurally, Dougherty has constructed a one-act drama that’s vaguely reminiscent of Antonio’s Song. And yet it’s completely different. Antonio is a one-man play. Chester is just the same. Except — the latter play is really a pair of one-man dramas. Both occasionally and meaningfully intersect at important junctures in the story line. And this is where Studio 112 magic often materializes.
Dougherty sets his play within the confines of a Long Island hospital in 1945, just as the Second World War nears its dramatic two-act conclusion. Chester Bailey (Ephraim Birney), the play’s eponymous central character, is a young guy in an unusual wartime situation. In an attempt to keep her son out of the fighting, his mother prevails upon his well-connected dad to pull a few political strings and get Chester appointed to a defense-industry job. This essentially keeps him out of military service. And away from the front lines in Europe and in the Pacific theater. But tragically, mom ends up doing Chester no favor at all.
The home front proves to have its perils
In an ironic twist of fate, Chester ends up getting cruelly mangled in an industrial accident that tragically occurs just as the war moves into its concluding phase. Both parents are consumed with guilt, feeling they’re complicit in the accident, which has robbed Chester of his hands and most of his face. He is now a perpetually pain-wracked invalid.
Unable to cope with Chester’s fate and appearance, his parents gradually withdraw from visiting Chester, leaving him to fend for himself as he’s moved into long term and obviously perpetual care.
Chester is left with the dubious companionship of his current psychiatrist, Dr. Philip Cotton (Reed Birney), the only other player in this increasingly claustrophobic drama. Cotton has his own issues, including a failing marriage and an increasing disrespect for the medical establishment.
Which is where we experience this play’s dueling but intersecting monologues.
The dueling monologues of Chester Bailey
Chester Bailey copes with his issues by vividly re-imagining that he is picking up his old life where he left off. That includes his fantasy romantic friendship with a beautiful young woman he’d encountered just before his accident. This, despite his lack of hands, which he stubbornly refuses to believe. (It’s a phenomenon known today as having “phantom limbs.”)
It’s Chester’s insistence that he actually has hands and that the young woman – apparently a nurse – occasionally visits him, that keeps him under the care of psychiatrists like Dr. Cotton.
Cotton, on the other hand, works in binary mode. While not lacking in compassion, he’s the typical, scientifically oriented male. Life is zeroes and ones, on and off. In so doing, he’s able to compartmentalize his emotions, including his marital and career turmoil. The latter comes to a head when he starts figuring out that there’s a darker meaning behind the young woman’s mysterious, unseen visits to Chester’s bedside.
More mental traveling, but two distinct journeys
Like Antonio, both Chester and Dr. Cotton also find themselves on mental journeys. But in Chester Bailey, both characters’ journeys, while grounded in the real lives they are living, mostly occur in their heads. They are products of their vivid imaginations – imaginations that both characters inevitably deploy to create alternative realities to replace the unbearable temporal realities of the painful lives they actually live.
But it’s inevitable that Chester will come to a tragic and undeserved end. At least on the surface. But his vividly imagined other life gives him the regenerative power that redeems him, at least inside his own head, leaving Dr. Cotton to contemplate his own future of zeroes and ones on his own. Meanwhile, Chester will somehow live on, like a spirit version of Lazarus, in a finer reality somewhere else in the universe.
Great acting, great directing and great production values make this play a winner
Ephraim Birney’s Chester is a remarkable and effective portrayal. A physically static character throughout most of the play, his Chester blossoms back into life after his accident through will and imagination. His newly reimagined reality proves powerful enough to draw us right into it as if it were real, and it’s a remarkable experience.
As Dr. Cotton, Reed Birney provides a reality check on the proceedings. But, as we learn, it’s not just that. He, too, inevitably comes to rely on his own two-dimensional imagination. He employs it to construct a world that’s more bearable than the one in which he actually lives.
CATF likes to bill itself as “Think Theater.” And when it comes to a play like Chester Bailey, we heartily agree. Under the sensitive direction of Ron Lagomarsino, Joseph Dougherty’s subtle, highly intelligent drama fully blossoms to become what it actually is: A metaphor of human beings forced to dwell in extremiswith no exit doors and no way out. Except for the magical, invisible door all of us can unlock through the gifts of creativity and imagination.
And so, our CATF 2019 journey to Studio 112 concludes in superb fashion. It does so by adding two more fine, intense, and deeply moving dramas to this year’s don’t miss list.
Chester Bailey: **** (Four out of four stars)
– Headline image: Reed and Ephraim Birney in Joseph Dougherty’s Chester Bailey. Photo Credit: Seth Freeman for CATF.
Getting tickets and getting there:
Check out our preview of all six CATF 2019 dramas here. We’ll have more on each play as the month progresses. Meanwhile, if you have interest in exploring and/or attending what CATF 2019 has to offer, our best advice? Head straight for the festival’s website, CATF online: www.CATF.org. Purchase tickets or full ticket packages right on the site. Or call the CATF box office at 800.999.CATF (2283). The season runs through Sunday, July 28, 2019.
Additionally, this site also lists dining a wide array of dining options. These are considerable, given the small size of this town. Additional information includes places to stay in and around Shepherdstown, located in the Eastern Panhandle of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. Whether you’re a D.C. area local or coming in from out of town, check out directions for getting there on CATF’s website.