Presented by Theatre Uncorked
By Dale Wasserman
Based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by Bobbie Steinbach
Critique by Kitty Drexel
(Cambridge, MA) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the play is a different beast from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the novel. The novel is directly influenced by author Ken Kesey’s experiences as an orderly at a mental health facility in California. The novel was written amidst the Civil Rights movement and is a direct response to the deinstitutionalization movement. It is imperative that and audience understand the stark differences between care expectations between the 60’s and today. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the novel is a heavy read. The play as staged by Theatre Uncorked could be viewed by nearly anyone.
Randle P. McMurphy (Gene Dante) is a selfish, lewd but charismatic villain with a tendency for violence and a patent dislike for any authority figure that he can’t con. He’s delivered to a mental institution in Oregon for psychosis. McMurphy thinks he can game the system by relaxing there while serving the last five months of his jail sentence. He meets a motley crew of long-term patients. He meets his nemesis in Nurse Ratched (Kerry A. Dowling). It doesn’t take long for him to realize the gravity of his mistake.
Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of the novel gives an actor the opportunity to deliver the Cuckoo’s Nest characters from Kesey’s original intent. For example, Nurse Ratched from the novel is an inhumane sadist who takes unholy joy in harming her patients. Nurse Ratched from the play is a woman trying doing her job at a time when mental healthcare offered more harm than help. Wasserman includes all of McMurphy’s toxic masculinity, but writes out all of Nurse Ratched’s vendettas. As this script exists, McMurphy is the chaotic-neutral trickster. Nurse Ratched, while not without flaws, is a woman doing her best with the primitive tools at her disposal. The real villain is the mental health system that believes electric shock treatment and lobotomies are “healthcare.”
Bobbie Steinbach’s staged reading is as effective as a traditional staging. Only a few actors carried scripts. The minimalist set, lighting and costume design was enough to transport us to the mental health facility. The sound design was eerie. Most importantly, the acting was believable and the characters clear. It had all the necessary makings of a great production.
Dante and Dowling have good chemistry. When Dante is boisterous; Dowling is reserved. They grant humanity to their characters. Dowling plays Ratched as a woman doing her job as a caretaker while a violent inmate wreaks havoc in her hospital. Dowling has us sympathize with Ratched. Meanwhile, McMurphy isn’t a good man (Dante goes to dramatic lengths to show us just how much of a jackass McMurphy is) but he deserves basic respect and dignity. Ratched sets to treat him the same as the other patients. His disruptive behavior is what draws her ire.
Ray O’Hare performs as Dale Harding with his usual panache. It’s the kind of quirky but sensitive role that O’Hare is known for and for good reason. Pedro Figueroa plays Chief Bromden with great vulnerability. His interscene monologues are delivered with childlike purity.
The ensemble achieved remained in character while walking onto the set, while “off stage” in the back of the room, and walking off set. Their discipline and focus to remain true to the performance are laudable. Ivy Ryan and Becca A. Lewis had to disappear in plain sight while the men controlled the stage. Their patience and their energy was unwavering.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is not frequently performed. There is still a great stigma around mental healthcare, and other plays treat survivors/care receivers/patients with better and more care than this play does. Additionally, Wasserman’s treatment of the source material is poor. Fortunately for us, Theatre Uncorked took a moderately adapted script and turned it into a great performance. It’s just spooky enough to tingle the toes this Halloween season.