PITTSFIELD — It took just one word for Barrington Stage Company artistic director Julianne Boyd to capture the meaning of the moment Wednesday night before a performance of “Chester Bailey,” a probing, multilayered drama by Joseph Dougherty.
“Welcome to live theater in a theater,” Boyd said.
A murmur of — gratitude? joy? anticipation? relief? — rose from behind the masked faces of the socially distanced audience. It’s fair to say my own emotions ran across that spectrum, too, as I prepared for the new-old experience of watching a play in the dark with a bunch of strangers.
Back in the Before Times, when I didn’t know what “comorbidities” were, I routinely saw three or four shows a week. But it had been 15 months since I’d last attended a performance inside a theater. During that protracted intermission, the words “inside” and “indoors” had become fraught.
Yet here we were, no longer forced to subsist on the thin gruel of Zoom theater, able to gather in-person again — thanks to game-changing vaccines — in an enclosed space. The mood was upbeat in the pre-show knots of conversation that formed a kind of human archipelago Wednesday in the aisles and seating areas of the Boyd-Quinson Stage. During the 90-minute performance, I stole a couple of glances at the crowd, whose masks gave them — us — a slightly extraterrestrial appearance that made me think of those black-and-white photos of 1950s movie audiences peering at the screen through 3-D glasses.
What was happening onstage during “Chester Bailey,” however, was usually too compelling to look away.
Set in a state-run psychiatric hospital on Long Island in 1945 and directed with intense focus by Ron Lagomarsino, the play by Dougherty (a TV writer and producer who won an Emmy Award for his work on “thirtysomething”) stars the father-son duo of Reed Birney and Ephraim Birney — and an inspired pairing it proves to be. (They’ve played the roles before, in West Virginia.)
The younger Birney plays the title character, who’s in his mid-20s, and Reed Birney plays Dr. Philip Cotton, a psychiatrist in his 50s who is assigned Chester as a patient. Cotton is also dealing with complications in his personal life; namely, the affair he is having with the wife of his superior.
For Chester, the law of unintended consequences has manifested itself in the most nightmarish fashion imaginable. His mother had been so determined to save her son from serving in World War II that she persuaded his father to find Chester a job as a riveter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Considered “war work,” it spared him from being drafted — but not from danger, and catastrophe. One day a mentally unbalanced coworker attacked Chester with an oxyacetylene torch, destroying his eyes and one of his ears, and burning off his hands.
Chester, however, refuses to believe any of it has happened. His consciousness fragmented, he insists he can still see, albeit imperfectly, and he is equally adamant in contending that he can both see and feel his hands. He also believes that love has entered his life. (The working-out of this plot point in “Chester Bailey” is likely to strike some as trading on the kind of stereotypes that were prevalent during the era when the play is set.)
Cotton’s job is to help Chester shed these delusions and ground himself in reality. “If there’s one thing reality can’t tolerate, it’s competition,” the doctor says dryly.
But is that the best tack? Dougherty’s play poses challenging questions about what, exactly, constitutes reality. Can it be self-willed? Can the mind construct a subjective bulwark against “objective” facts too terrible to be faced or endured? And, on a less esoteric but crucial level, how can parents or doctors or anybody else ever know whether the decisions they make are the right ones in the too-brief moment those decisions are made?
With its high, darkened windows looming over Chester’s bone-white hospital bed and wheelchair, Beowulf Boritt’s set design creates a between-two-worlds effect that is skillfully augmented by Peter Kaczorowski’s crepuscular lighting and Brendan Aanes’s jolting sound design.
As Cotton, Reed Birney (a Tony Award winner for “The Humans”) displays his well-honed adeptness at suggesting great depth of feeling beneath a self-contained exterior. As Chester, Ephraim Birney is simply extraordinary. He delivers a performance that moves us and haunts us in equal measure.
And evidently delighted his old man. At the curtain call Wednesday night, a beaming Reed Birney embraced Ephraim, his pride palpable. Watching, I felt my throat catch a bit — mostly at the father-son warmth of the scene, but also, perhaps, at the prospect that theater could be poised not just for a return but a renewal.
Play by Joseph Dougherty. Directed by Ron Lagomarsino. Presented by Barrington Stage Company. At Boyd-Quinson Stage, Pittsfield, through July 3. Tickets $35-$100. 413-236-8888, www.barringstonstageco.org