“If there’s one thing reality can’t tolerate, it’s competition.”
Those wise words come from Dr. Philip Cotton (a stoic Reed Birney) as he speaks to himself a little less than midway through Joseph Dougherty’s “Chester Bailey,” currently in production as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. They come after a sad revelation that is as illuminating as it is frank.
“By definition, Chester Bailey was delusional and delusional people can not be allowed to roam the streets.”
Yet what this story spotlights is the often ignored value that comes within the very precept that is most commonly known as delusion. Take away judgments or social norms or the line that separates acceptance from rejection and being delusional … well, it ain’t all that bad.
Case in point is the play’s namesake, Chester Bailey himself (a sympathetic Ephraim Birney, who is Reed’s real-life son). He finds himself holed up in a hospital without hands, an ear or vision. He was the victim of an attack at work and while doctors continue to insist Chester lost those vitals as a result of it, the patient argues otherwise.
He can still see, he says, as he talks about a painting, and he’s certain his hands never left him as he reaches for a glass on a desk. There was once a girl with whom he danced, and then another girl from whom he bought gum. He met her at Penn Station on a night where the $5 in his pocket held as much hope as the type of promise a young man feels whenever he sets out for a night on the town.
Penn Station, meanwhile, is also a place of purpose for Dr. Cotton, whose personal life feels as hopeless as Chester’s feels hopeful. He has home problems, work problems, family problems and happiness problems, though his relentless desire to disabuse Chester’s own personal reality only grows as the pages turn.
Or, well, that is, until it doesn’t.
But in the spirit of sequestering spoilers, that’s another story for another day. Instead, what he does here is play with the idiom of perception, an element of living as powerful as each breath we breathe. How much different can a life be if it’s afforded an unapologetically sanguine perception? How much happiness can one achieve if he or she merely decides to achieve it? Those are the questions that paint the heart of “Chester Bailey,” the play, and not just the character.
“We underestimate the brain,” Dr. Cotton explains at one point. “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 it feel the need to invent the soul?”
Set almost exclusively in a hospital room, the story here dives deep into such a provocative inquiry regarding the chicken-and-egg nature of what a soul is. If it’s nothing more than a mere byproduct of an imaginative brain, its purpose might be minimized, its presence an illusion. Yet if it’s more than that, if it’s designed to aid us in our quest for hope during hopeless times, then the soul should never be dismissed and, in fact, should be recognized as the most imperative aspect of an existence.
Either way, “Chester Bailey” is wildly soulful. It might make you cry, it will certainly make you think, and perhaps most enduring of all, it will insist that you take the tale with you as the lights go up and you shuffle out of the theater. Occasionally erotic, accidentally wistful and charmingly unassuming, it’s designed to evoke a plethora of emotions within an audience and it does not fail.
Both Birneys are riveting in their respective characters (you might recognize the elder from Netflix’s “House Of Cards,” as he portrayed Vice President Donald Blythe). One bleeds eternal optimism while the other is weighed down by a life that didn’t turn out the way he hoped. The true genius of the production is that those roles don’t land on the characters who, on face value, you might think they should. It’s a lesson in worldview and a masterclass in cognizance.
“So, is something going to happen,” Dr. Cotton relays in tandem at one point along with a personal anecdote, “or, is something going to happen?”
In “Chester Bailey,” a lot happens — and yet its biggest victory is that most of it never even makes it to the page.