On a day in November 1944, a terrible incident in the Brooklyn Navy Yard leaves one worker, Chester Bailey, without sight or hands. He denies the true extent of his situation as he retreats into his imagination, his mind, to create a sensory reality that is uniquely his own.
“I can’t see perfect, but don’t tell me I’m blind, ‘cause I’m not,” Bailey says. “And don’t tell me I don’t have any hands when I can feel them and I can see them.”
“Everyone agreed it was some sort of auto-symptomatic adjustment, like the phantom pains, Chester continued to mistake for his missing hands,” his doctor, Philip Cotton, remarks at one point in “Chester Bailey,” a two-character play by Emmy Award-winner Joseph Dougherty which opened Friday at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Stage at 30 Union St. in Pittsfield. The drama is scheduled to run through July 3. Press opening is June 23 and 24.
And, so begins a relationship between a patient in a unique kind of denial and a doctor in his mid-50s who has made a career counseling returning World War II soldiers in a hospital on Long Island. He is the essence of scientific pragmatism and skepticism. Bailey challenges just about everything Dr. Cotton has come to know over the course of a solidly professional, if unremarkable, career.
“Chester Bailey” premiered in 2016 at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in San Francisco in a production directed by Ron Lagomarsino that featured David Strathairn as Dr. Cotton and Dan Clegg as the title character. Lagomarsino directed “Chester Bailey’s” 2019 East Coast premiere at Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va., this time with Reed Birney as Dr. Cotton and Birney’s son, Ephraim Birney, as Chester.
Now, the three are together again, this time in the Berkshires.
Dougherty found the seed for “Chester Bailey” in a newspaper clipping his wife showed him about a legal case involving a terrible accident. One sentence stood out — “The patient seems in denial about her injuries.”
“I wondered how that could be,” Dougherty said during a pre-rehearsal interview at BSC’s Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center.
As well as the A.C.T. premiere went — it was named Outstanding World Premiere Play and Outstanding Production of a Play by the TBA (Theater Bay Area) Awards — there was still work to be done.
“The discovery process was only near done when we went back to the play in West Virginia,” Dougherty said. “Many questions had to be answered.”
“Chester’s imagination is so much more palpable to me now,” Ephraim Birney said. “I understand so much more.”
Dougherty and Lagomarsino are long-time colleagues and friends. “We’ve worked together for decades,” Lagomarsino said. “(Joe) almost literally pulled this play out of his pocket. It is so completely different.”
The doctor/patient relationship in “Chester Bailey” is layered and profound.
“Both of them experience things so vividly (even if their manner of describing things is so opposite),” Ephraim Birney said.
Reed suggested the play’s dynamics live in the contrast between Chester’s optimism and Cotton’s cynicism,
“Both initially think they don’t need each other,” Reed Birney said, “(and yet) human connection is so important.”
Reed Birney and Lagomarsino also have known each other for some time. Lagomarsino recalled that as he and Birney were discussing the Shepherdstown production of “Chester Bailey,” “Reed mentioned to me that Ephraim had received great notices for a play he had done in (Washington) D.C.”
Acting on a hunch, Lagomarsino asked his casting director, Pat McCorkle, to bring Ephraim Birney in to read.
“He hit it out of the ball park,” Lagomarsino said. He has continued to “hit it out of the ball park” during rehearsals. All agree that father and son have worked well together.
“I couldn’t have charted a better course,” Dougherty said.
For all the play’s complexities; the serious, often dark, issues it raises, Dougherty said he’s never thought about the play as not having hope.
“There is, for (Chester), a lifeline of faith that never breaks,” Ephraim Birney said.
“There is a certain magic to this play that is hard to define,” Reed Birney said. “It is effortlessly life-affirming.”