If Nina Ball’s scenic design for Chester Bailey was hanging in a museum, art critics would consider it a masterpiece of sculptural Cubism.
Lunette windows hang down from the rafters at off-kilter angles. They suggest the shape of a building remembered in fragments, as if a mind in distress was in the process of putting it back together again but without much success. The panes themselves are filled in with black glass. They represent the facade of a building that refuses to let in the presence, or escape, of any light.
At first glance, it could be a cathedral. In fact, it’s a hospital, another place where people expend their prayers.
[jump] The other set details quickly come into focus — an uncluttered clinician’s desk; a wheelchair; one stainless steel single bed. An old-fashioned radio plays post-World War II music. Jo Stafford’s honeyed voice instantly envelops the audience in an imperfect era of American nostalgia. She sings, “In the night, though we're apart,/There's a ghost of you within my haunted heart.” Before anyone walks on stage, Joseph Dougherty, the playwright, has, with precision and clarity, established the tone. We’re in a country recovering from loss.
The lights go up on Chester Bailey (a riveting Dan Clegg) as he’s lying in bed, resting in a cocoon of darkness. In his plain robe, striped pajamas and slippers, he’s a strapping figure. Seemingly fit and chipper, he introduces himself in a chatty monologue. Then the spotlight dims, Chester goes quiet and Dr. Cotton (David Strathairn) enters. For much of the play, the narratives of these two men run parallel to each other. A mirroring effect begins to occur as each man tells his story, but the reflection is distorted. They’re telling different versions of the same story: one of them is an unreliable narrator. But which one?
Strathairn plants his feet squarely yet softly on the stage. In his direct address to the audience, the actor makes it plain that Dr. Cotton, in addition to being good at his job, is also humble. But Dougherty doesn’t make him a saint out to save damaged souls. His personal life, including his marriage, is flawed. Still, if you were suffering from some kind of trauma, you could do worse than have Dr. Cotton on your case. And Chester’s case, it turns out, is tragic.
Chester’s mother forbade her son from entering the war and he didn’t resist. His parents found work for him in a naval yard, an accepted exemption. But an accident on the job occurs one day that irreparably damages his body and mind. Dr. Cotton provides the facts of the case; Chester the unconscious material that forms the basis of Cotton’s diagnosis. If the details given here are vague, that’s deliberate. It’s in the unearthing of these two stories that the audience discovers some rare dramatic metal.
The playwright mines it by enacting a classical trope from Aeschylus: Dougherty unleashes The Furies on the bodies and souls of the Bailey clan. By avoiding conscription, Chester, and his unfortunate parents, endure the wrath of the angry dead. He’s asking an impossible question: is it possible to escape from being damned by fate? If his mother hadn’t; if his father hadn’t; if only he’d… The Baileys exercise their American right to free will, to the pursuit of happiness, and are only punished for their hubris.
Chester Bailey is consumed with imagery of fire. In his hospital bed, Chester remembers the sweater of a red-haired girl he regrets not having pursued. Her white sweater bore a Chinese symbol on the chest. Once she stood within reach; now she only exists in his memory. He describes its golden color and shape as if it were an entrance to paradise. It’s never made clear if what he’s describing is a phoenix. But his imagination, his most valuable possession, takes him there, up and out of the flames of hell. The Furies, like Dr. Cotton, in a moment of remarkable pity, leave him with at least that much.
Chester Bailey, at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, 415.749.2228.