Reality vs. imagination in ACT’s appealing Chester Bailey

Recovering from devastating injuries in a Long Island hospital room, Chester Bailey (Dan Clegg, right) is visited by Dr. Philip Cotton (David Strathairn) in American Conservatory Theater’s world-premiere staging of Joseph Dougherty’s Chester Bailey at the Strand Theater. Below: Bailey (left) and Cotton work through some serious issues of reality vs. imagination. Photos by Kevin Berne

In Joseph Dougherty’s Chester Bailey, it’s reality vs. imagination, and the audience wins.

This world-premiere production from American Conservatory Theater is a modest two-hander performed in the intimate Strand Theater, an old-fashioned feeling play woven through with dry humor and compassion. Think of it sort of as an Oliver Sacks case history come to life with a modicum of theatrical flair.

I say a modicum because, for all intents and purposes, this could be a radio play, which seems fitting for a story set in 1945 and dealing with the effects of the World War II. The design elements – industrial girders and windows set by Nina Ball, sharp lighting by Robert Hand – are strong, but this is really an exercise in storytelling and listening to two characters, played by two appealing actors, figure each other out.

It takes a half an hour of the play’s 90 minutes for the two characters to actually be in the same room, but until then, we get their backstory. David Strathairn is Dr. Philip Cotton, who is working at a mental hospital in Long Island. Aside from personal details like his failed marriage and his affair with his boss’ wife, we learn that one of his most interesting patients is Chester Bailey, played by Dan Clegg, a Brooklyn man in his early 20s whose parents interfered to keep him out of the war by getting him a job in the naval shipyards. Their efforts to safeguard their only child backfired when Chester was involved in a terrible incident that robbed him of his sight and his hands. The thing is that Chester, teetering on that line between imagination and delusion, thinks he can see and thinks he still has two perfectly good hands.


Developed in New Strands, ACT’s new works program, Chester Bailey has the feel of a ghost story (Jo Stafford singing “Haunted Heart” as the lights come up sets just the right tone) because between the dueling narratives, we’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s not, and that’s good for the drama. Director Ron Lagomarsino effectively twines Chester and Dr. Cotton’s stories to the point that all of us – characters and audience – are hoping the ghosts are real.

Strathairn is such good company on stage. His Dr. Cotton is droll and wise and ultimately the kind of doctor we’d all wish for – he’s smart enough to know when to stop being a clinician and start being a human being. Clegg, once you get past his unconvincing Brooklyn accent, is an endearing, complicated Chester, a young man tormented by not serving his country and then abandoned through a series of misfortunes. It’s a tricky role because we have to like Chester and understand his submission to his parents, his denial surrounding his injuries and his rather remarkable ability to create and inhabit a reality so different from the one he’s living.

There’s nothing groundbreaking or particularly edgy in Chester Bailey. It’s an intriguing story, well told and warmth, intelligence and humor.

Joseph Dougherty’s Chester Bailey continues through June 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25 to $75 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

ACT’s Lintel celebrates life, librarians

David Strathairn is a globe-trotting, mystery-solving librarian in Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, a solo show at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Photos by Kevin Berne

What’s the haps in Hoofddorp, you ask? Well, for a small town in Holland, things are pretty dull, actually, thanks for asking. The good news is they’ve got a heck of a library in Hoofddorp, complete with the Dewey decimal system and time-stamped check-out cards and everything. We know this because a former librarian – we never find out his name – desperately wants to tell us about a life-changing adventure that was triggered by something that happened on an ordinary day on the job at the library.

It seems an overdue book made its way into the overnight bin (which is NOT supposed to be for overdue books, but it happens). But as our librarian was fussing (as librarians are wont to do), he discovered something interesting: this little Baedeker’s was 113 years overdue. If the book was returned in 1986 (as we’re told it was), that means the book was checked out in 1873. Adding to the intrigue, the book was checked to someone whose name is indicated only by an initial: A.

Tormented by his inability to fine the irresponsible book checker-outer, Librarian turns his focus to the notes in the margins of the book and to a laundry claim ticket he finds tucked in the pages that turns out to be a from a London outfit. Having never ventured out of his home country, Librarian can’t resist the urge to do a little exploring. And once he finds a pair of unclaimed trousers (never cleaned because of their deplorable condition), the adventure begins in earnest.

So goes Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, a solo drama now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. The inestimable David Strathairn is the Librarian, complete with mild Dutch accent (he sounds a little like Tim Conway’s Mr. Tudball on the “Carol Burnett Show”) and the growing enthusiasm of globe-trotting storyteller on a mission to discover the elusive A.


It’s a journey that takes our humble fussbudget to China, Australia, America (where he does some adorable swing dancing in New York) and Germany among other places, all of which he conveys to us through an intermittent slide show complete with music he plays on an old cassette recorder. It’s actually charming to watch a talented librarian – depicted here as sort of a superhero with mad research skills – get so excited about finally stepping into real life.

It’s when his sleuthing starts spanning centuries that I started losing interest. There’s a suggestion that A could be the mythical Wandering Jew – a cobbler who taunted Jesus on his way to his crucifixion and was condemned to walk the Earth forever – and that means there’s no real solution to the central mystery (though it is amusing to think of Ahasuerus checking out a Baedeker’s in Hoofddorp).

Director Carey Perloff’s production also threw me off balance. The show begins with the Librarian taking the stage (Nina Ball’s marvelous set design crams all kinds of theatrical junk, from costumes to props to chandeliers to barely visible backdrops), addressing his audience and telling them he’s here for, as the play’s subtitle puts it, “an impressive presentation of lovely evidences.” On his fact-finding journeys, he has accumulated papers and items, all of which he has meticulously tagged and numbered. He occasionally shares his slides and plays his tape recorder, but mainly he tells his story.

But then he starts finding pieces of evidence in tucked-away places around the stage. And soon, there are lighting and music cues that he’s not controlling. So what begins as a real-life lecture demonstration becomes a fully designed theatrical presentation of which the Librarian is only a part (not the sole focus nor the master of the story).

Underneath the Lintel is a sweet, slightly sappy existentialist musing that ultimately takes the long view of time and the universe and man’s conversely important and insignificant place in it. Pondering such things is never a waste of time, though this production, in spite of Strathairn’s abundant charms, has the power to make 95 minutes feel longer. The end should be an epiphany, but it’s less profound, more pleasant, and that’s not quite enough for such an awfully big adventure.

Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel continues an extended run through Nov. 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. Tickets are $20-$140 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Feeling burned by ACT’s Scorched

Scorched 1
In fulfillment of her estranged mother’s final wishes, Canadian notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) gives Janine (ACT core acting company member Annie Purcell) a jacket with the mysterious number 72 embroidered on the back, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched at the American Conservatory Theater. Below: A militiaman (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano) apprehends Nawal (Marjan Neshat, left) and her friend Sawda (ACT Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre) when he suspects them of being notorious revolutionaries. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Wajdi Mouawad’s drama Scorched is a riveting, affecting and thought-provoking play – in its last 30 minutes. To get there you have to spend more than two hours slogging through layers of back story, stilted acting and rigid dialogue (the translation is by Linda Gaboriau). You have to ask yourself, is the slog worth it? I’ll let you know in a minute.

This American Conservatory Theater production directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff features a wonderfully baffling performance by Academy Award-nominee David Strathairn as a Canadian notary who has been named executor of a late client’s estate. The performance is wonderful because Strathairn is among the only actors on stage who seems to feel any depth to his character. Everyone else is just plain intense. But Strathairn, though he has moments of intensity, is warm and, unlike most everyone else, on a relatably human scale. His Alphonse Lebel clearly cared a great deal for his late client, the mother of two surly twins, and his inability to complete a sentence with some sort of malapropism is endearing (if not remotely believable). That’s what’s baffling about the performance – the slight absurdity of the character doesn’t really make sense in the world of utter intensity that Mouawad is creating. But it’s so nice to have comic relief, albeit slight, that you welcome Strathairn’s every moment on stage (which amounts to not nearly enough moments).

Mouawad is unfurling an epic family story here that begins in the 1950s in an unnamed Middle Eastern country (Mouawad is Lebanese Canadian, so we can probably do the math here) where Nawal, a smart and defiant young woman (Marjan Neshat) falls in love and gives birth to a son who is ripped from her arms.

Scorched 2

That woman grows up and, unlike the other women in her village, learns to read and write. She embarks on a quest to find her lost son with the help of another village woman, Sawda (Omozé Idehenre). The quest takes the women into the middle of a war between government forces and rebels, and the horrors of that war lead to a staggering number of horrifying events.

The narrative bounces back and forth between the Middle East of the past and Canada of now, where twins Simon (Babak Tafti) and Janine (Annie Purcell) are informed by the bumbling Alphonse that their recently deceased mother, the same Nawal, left them with assignments involving her homeland and the father they didn’t know was alive and the brother they didn’t know they had.

By Act 2, the play has become a mystery leading up to some sort of big revelation. Though Act 1 is almost devoid of tension (though there’s voluminous stage smoke attempting to disguise the fact), Act 2 gains momentum from the sheer force of the storytelling promising some sort of resolution. When it finally comes – through a series of hard-to-believe connections, recollections and stock characters – it’s a doozy.

Even more than the plot details, the play finally becomes about something other than the difficulty of the past (“childhood is a knife stuck in the throat – it is not easily removed,” we’re told) and the danger of the Middle East. Suddenly we’re dealing with characters holding love and hatred simultaneously, and the performances finally come to life, if only briefly. Jacqueline Antaramian delivers several difficult monologues that overflow with pain and, at long last, ground the play in something genuine and not just theatrical.

So is the slog worth it? I’d have to say yes. When you remember the play, you really won’t think much about the first two-plus hours. You’ll remember the sensation and surprising depth of the last half hour. The journey could be a lot more interesting, but the destination is ultimately worth the ride.

[bonus interview]
I talked to David Strathairn about Scorched and, among other things, his work on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Read the San Francisco Chronicle interview here.

Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched continues through March 11 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10 to $85 (subject to change). Call (415-749-2228 or visit