Review: ‘Chester Bailey’ at A.C.T.’s Strand Theatre (***1/2)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Can one live in an imaginary world? Is it ever right do so? Can an imaginary world be more true than “reality?”

These are the sort of questions addressed in this fascinating new play by Joseph Dougherty.

If anybody’s world was ever unbearable, it would be that of Chester Bailey, the title character.

Chester is a young man who has survived an horrific and senseless attack. In the days after Pearl Harbor, Chester wanted to enlist. But his mother persuaded his father, a military officer with some clout, to find Chester a stateside factory job that would exempt him from the draft. Ironically, it is here that Chester is attacked by a crazed co-worker wielding a blow torch. Chester’s eyes are burned completely away, as is one ear and much of his face. His hands are burned away as well, leaving only stumps. He is not expected to survive, but he does.

L to R: David Strathairn as Dr. Philp Cotton and Dan Clegg as Chester Bailey in A.C.T.'s world premiere production of Joseph Dougherty's "Chester Bailey." Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
L to R: David Strathairn as Dr. Philip Cotton and Dan Clegg as Chester Bailey in A.C.T.’s world premiere production of Joseph Dougherty’s “Chester Bailey.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

The audience meets the very likable Chester (Dan Clegg), who is a patient in a mental institution, just as Doctor Philip Cotton (David Strathairn) prepares to take on his case. We learn that Chester is in complete denial of his condition. He has, in fact, concocted a story of an industrial accident instead of a madman’s attack, and he has convinced himself that his sight is returning and that he has hands. He is, in fact, delusional.

Doctor Cotton is charged with coaxing Chester to face and accept reality, but Chester is adamant in his belief in his own wholeness. All the evidence that Doctor Cotton can muster fails to break Chester’s faith.

As this drama enfolds, Chester’s determined fantasy seems to be his salvation, his imaginary world the creation of a great artist, perhaps it is even a saintly matter of religious ecstacy. (I was reminded of the stories told of St. Francis of Assissi, who, on being treated for blindness by having his face cauterized with hot irons, reported feeling no pain whatsoever. Or so goes the tale.)

Doctor Cotton has no doubt, initially, of how to proceed. Surely, Chester needs to be disenchanted. But as Cotton struggles with his own inadequacies, failures, and lack of wholeness, he begins to wonder if, perhaps, Chester has got hold of something great.

The drama is played out in a series of monologues and dialogues that explore many nooks and crannies of thought opened up by the intriguing premise of the play. There are also some surprising and disturbing plot twists as the story of the two lives unfolds.

Dan Clegg is wonderful as Chester, shining with a praternatural joy even as his situation becomes ever more gruesome. As Dr. Cotton, David Strathairn is equally excellent, but perhaps his character is not as fascinating.

The central conflict is this: Will Dr. Cotton allow Chester to retain his illusions? Or will he push for a “cure?” Perhaps Chester’s creation of an imaginary world in which he can thrive is the true cure?

This is a play of ideas, but also a play of emotions, and it is very moving, indeed.

The evocative set by Nina Ball suggests a realistic hospital room, but at times seems to soar like a cathedral (or a train station), an effect beautifully enhanced by Robert Hand’s lighting design. The design team is ably completed by Jessie Amoroso (costumes) and Brendan Aanes (sound).

Chester’s story will stick with you for a long time.

“Chester Bailey” plays at A.C.T.’s Strand Theatre through June 12, 2016. For further information, click here
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Rating: ***1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Chester Bailey” by Joseph Dougherty. World premiere produced by A.C.T. Director: Ron Lagomarsino. Scenic Design: Nina Ball. Costume Design: Jessie Amoroso. Lighting Design: Robert Hand. Sound Design: Brendan Aanes.

Cast:

Chester Bailey: Dan Clegg. Dr. Philip Cotton: David Strathairn.

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