By Tulis McCall
This play is titled Chester Bailey, but it should be titled Philip Cotton. Cotton (in an extraordinary performance by Reed Birney) is the person who holds up the sky in this show. It is he who transforms as we watch. Because of Chester Bailey, (Ephraim Birney) who is the doctor’s patient. Chester doesn’t have a lot to do here on account of the terrible accident. We have only a brief time with him before he is left blind and without his hands. Chester Bailey, however, will go to his deathbed denying the reality. He will never stop telling the world that he can see and feel. He will not go into that good night. Not no way, not no how.
This creates a problem for Ephraim Birney whose story peaks early on. Once we reach his defiant first moment of denial, there is no place else for him to go. Not that he doesn’t try. He makes a mighty effort.
Reed Birney, as Doctor Cotton, has a barnyard of moments to play, and he takes advantage of every single one of them. The elder Birney weaves a seamless tale.
Dougherty paints these men with a simple brush. The similarities stack up gently over the 90 minutes we share. It is 1945 and Bailey’s parents got him a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The war was winding down, so why send him off to war? Better to keep him safe at home. Cotton, like his patient, never enlisted. He is blind as well – colorblind. He cannot see the world as others see it, and is, therefore, not fit for duty. Dr. Cotton served the war machine as a psychiatrist, stationed in Washington DC until he escaped to Walt Whitman hospital in Long Island. His wife and daughter lived in Manhattan which meant he was coming home.
Doctor Cotton, too, is the victim of many an accident. Betrayals. Chance meetings. Over the next few months his life is turned upside down – again like his patient – and he willingly takes detours that lead him down dark but hopeful paths. Each of these choices is picked over like a chef sharing a recipe. This is the recipe of my life he is telling us, and I own every step.
Chester Bailey is makes incremental decisions because that is all he can do. He has been transferred to this “looney bin” because he is not of sound mind. A blind man who insists he can see is not to be trusted out on the street. He is left like a hamster in a cage – and this one has no wheel.
What sustains both of them is this relationship – one that neither wanted. They make this clear. Both men unravel until they meet at the crossroads on some dry and lonely stretch of road. The conclusion is logic defying and leaves us surprised and in limbo. Which is not a bad place to be. Would that Chester Bailey himself had gotten more of a chance to lure us into that lonesome, immense heart. As it is we have to be satisfied with standing on the outside and peaking in.
Cotton asks us, “We underestimate the brain. It does so much it shouldn’t be able to do. People argue about the existence of the soul. Why aren’t there intense debates about the imagination? Where does it come from, what is its purpose? Why did the brain feel the need to invent the soul?”
Good question. Wish I had a little more to go on answer-wise. I expect the question will linger for a long time, however.
CHESTER BAILEY by BY JOSEPH DOUGHERTY, DIRECTED BY RON LAGOMARSINO
WITH REED BIRNEY AND EPHRAIM BIRNEY
Scenic design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Toni Leslie-James, lighting design byBrian MacDevitt and sound design by Brendan Aanes.
Now through November 20th. TICKETS HERE