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ACT’s ‘Chester Bailey’ muses on memory

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David Strathairn, left, and Dan Clegg appear in American Conservatory Theater’s premiere of “Chester Bailey.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

When we first lay eyes on him, the title character of “Chester Bailey” is in a hospital bed, but his injuries aren’t apparent. In Joseph Dougherty’s new play, making its world premiere at the American Conservatory Theater, it’s up to his attending physician, Dr. Philip Cotton, to explain Chester’s condition.

It’s 1945, he tells us, and while working in a Brooklyn naval shipyard, Chester (a youthful Dan Clegg) was attacked by a man with an acetylene torch; horribly burned, he lost both of his eyes, an ear and both hands. Dr. Cotton (a quietly erudite David Strathairn) sees Chester as he is, but we see Chester as he sees himself — whole, with only slightly impaired vision.

Perception, memory, desire and delusion drive this moving two-character drama, which centers on the doctor’s struggle to bring Chester to a realization of his true condition.

Dougherty structures the story as intertwined monologues, with each character offering his own perspective on the past events that have brought them together.

Chester has lost more than his sight. His mother, who persuaded him to take a job at the shipyard to avoid having to fight overseas, visited him once in the hospital and never returned. She and Chester’s father both died, presumably of shock and grief. Dr. Cotton has lost his family, too; as his career progressed, his wife divorced him, taking their beloved daughter with her.

Both men are haunted by love — Chester, for a woman he met in a brief encounter at Penn Station; the doctor, from an affair with the wife of his supervising physician — and the playwright illuminates their narratives with vivid sense memories. The question of whether those memories are real or invented brings the play to a wrenching climax. The quality of mercy, Dougherty suggests, resides in an understanding of the mind’s power to compensate for loss.

Director Ron Lagomarsino delivers a well-paced production firmly set in the grim aftermath of World War II (an iron bed and an antique wheelchair decorate Nina Ball’s set, with Robert Hand’s gray lighting seeping in from the high windows above).

Yet “Chester Bailey” transcends its setting on the strengths of the two-man cast. Clegg radiates an ebullient energy scarcely contained in his rangy, damaged frame. Strathairn, in his third ACT production, gives a wry, brilliantly chiseled performance as the doctor whose training hasn’t prepared him for this case.

There’s a surprising amount of humor in his delivery; by the end, though, the laughs fade away, and the questions he’s raised stay with you.

Chester Bailey
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 12
Tickets: $25 to $80
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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