Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2007
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is exactly the same enormous anti-establishment 1960’s melodrama that I remembered it to be. And I enjoyed it thoroughly.
In an interview with a member of the BTF PR staff, playwright Dale Wasserman noted that he had only written two highly successful scripts – ...Cuckoo’s Nest and Man of La Mancha – and that they told exactly the same story, and he’s right. Both tales deal with people who go outside the system and the system nails them for it. Therefore both obviously have some heavy Christian overtones, because Jesus of Nazareth was the ultimate system-bucker, and boy, did he get nailed! In ...Cuckoo’s Nest the point is driven home rather obviously by the almost constant presence of the lobotomized Mr. Ruckly who spends his days spread-eagled against the back wall, convinced that his hands have been nailed up crucifixion style.
So in case you didn’t get the message, Randle P. McMurphy is a sacrificial lamb. He gives his life so that The Chief may live.
The story is set in a very black-and-white power system – a mental institution. The patients are not acceptable to society at large, and the staff are. Therefore the staff are always right and the patients are always wrong. There is no argument. The patients are officially crazy* or they wouldn’t be there. They have no real rights.
McMurphy, who is faking his mental illness to avoid jail, knows that he isn’t crazy and that he has rights, and he asserts them. It is sad but true that in general, if you tell a group of people that they are incompetent and have no rights, they come to believe you and behave as if this is the truth. For the patients on this ward, McMurphy is a reminder that they are still human beings with personal rights and dignity. McMurphy’s nemesis and the ultimate representative of The System is Nurse Ratched. In her film incarnation, Nurse Ratched was named the fifth greatest villain by the American Film Institute, after Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West. My, my! On the stage she gets right up in your face considerably less, but her cold clinical manipulation of human souls is no less chilling.
In Eric Hill’s fine production currently on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival McMurphy is played by the very talented Jonathan Epstein, Nurse Ratched by Linda Hamilton, star of the Terminator movies and TV’s Beauty and the Beast (there she was the Beauty, here she is the Beast), and Chief Bromden by Austin Durant. The entire cast is uniformly excellent, but the performances of these three actors is key to the overall success of the production.
The minute I learned that Epstein had been cast as McMurphy, my heart sang. Of course he would be wonderful, and he is. Epstein is capable of generating tremendous energy and machismo, two traits key to a successful portrayal of McMurphy. My only tiny quibble is his eyebrows, which seem to have disappeared which I find very disconcerting. Eyebrows exist for the sole purpose of making our facial expressions easier to interpret, something that is especially important in the theatre where people are trying to read faces from a distance. I think this is a product of Epstein’s eyebrows, and the hair on his head (but not, inexplicably, his beard), having been dyed quite a light red for this character. I think that someone should take an eyebrow pencil and darken them up a bit.
Hamilton, who has played “ball-busting” women on film, is, in real-life, a petite almost fragile looking woman. She plays Nurse Ratched as a tightly controlled instrument – absolutely methodical and unswerving in her sense of duty and power. Hamilton brings Nurse Ratched’s power from her center, rather than from any exterior show of strength. Hamilton also suffers from bi-polar disorder and is a public advocate for the rights of the mentally ill. I would be very interested someday to hear her personal take on Nurse Ratched and the system she embodies.
Durant is appropriately hulking to play the Chief, but to me he was never convincing in his catatonia, his emerging relationship with McMurphy, or his final arrival at a place where he is ready to go back out into the real world. I actually worried about him as he climbed out that window because I was convinced that this Chief was not ready and couldn’t survive.
Far stronger were the supporting “Acutes” – Randy Harrison as the timid, stuttering Billy Bibbit; Tommy Schrider as the nervous and effeminate Dale Harding; and Robert Serrell as the hallucinating Martini were all excellent. Harrison’s rendering of Billy’s final defeat at the hands of Nurse Ratched was brilliant and profoundly moving. It clearly set her up as the guilty party, allowing McMurphy’s attack on her and the disaster that follows to play out smoothly.
Stew Nantell did an excellent job as the lobotomized and frequently crucified Ruckly. He remained firmly within his character but also softly in the background for most of the play, a running commentary on the system and its victims.
On a lighter note Ron Bagden was amusing as the weak-willed Dr. Spivey, and Crystal Bock was both hilarious and touching as Candy Starr, the “loose woman” to whom Billy loses his virginity. Floozies are people too, and Bock never let you forget that.
Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, published in 1962, was based on Kesey’s own experiences working as an orderly in a mental institution. Even though Wasserman has revised his 1963 script several times, the play is still set in 1960 and reflects the mental health system in place in the late 1950’s. I believe this may lull some people into thinking that places like this no longer exist. While there have been great advances in medication for mental illnesses, and there is some more public acceptance of and tolerance for the mentally ill, I can tell you from personal experience that psychiatric wards are still run on much the same social and disciplinary system as the one depicted in the play. The legal status of patients, voluntary and committed, is about the same too.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that it would not be hard to find places like the ward depicted in this play all across this country today.
Other than the Christian imagery, the other major theme in this play is electricity. The Chief perceives the world as a giant Combine, powered by human souls. McMurphy tries, and fails, to lift the heavy generator box in the rec room. The Chief and McMurphy both undergo electroshock therapy. And the scenes are opened and closed with the sharp sound of a large electrical power grid surging on and then winding down into rest, effects for which we have lighting designer Matthew Adelson and sound designer/composer J Hagenbuckle to thank.
Karl Eigsti has designed a wonderful set. It looks exactly like a room in a decaying early 20th century institution – the walls covered in peeling layers of hideous institutional green paint – while giving the cast many levels and nooks and crannies to play in. Nurse Ratched and her staff rule from a raised, glassed-in booth stage right. Again, Hagenbuckle has done a fine job of creating the muffled quality of the miked voices that emanate from that booth, announcing medication time or group meeting or trying futilely to bring McMurphy into line.
For all its familiarity, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest remains a powerful tale of the power struggle between humankind's need for conformity and its need for individual expression. This is a great play to see with the teenagers in your life, as it gives voice also to the generational struggle between young and old, wisdom and ambition. This is an exceptionally fine production. I encourage you to go.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest runs through July 28 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (box office 413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 13 and up.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007