One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the infamous tug-of-war between the not so crazy upstart Randle P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratchet, the head Nurse of a ward for the mental ill in an institution circa 10906. McMurphy thinks he'll get out of doing five months hard labor by spending five months in the loony bin. After all, how hard could it be to act crazy, right?
McMurphy (Jonathan Epstein) finds himself locked up with the acutely mentally ill patients run by tyrannically stern Nurse Ratchet . Right away, McMurphy introduces cards with naked ladies and gambling and ideas like independent thought into the ward of misfits. He suggests exercising the democracy of this "democratic ward." But most of all, he wishes to "pull the plug" on that head nurse.
In this production, Nurse Ratchet (Linda Hamilton) makes no dispersion of her motives. There is no question of whether her character feels she is doing all this for the good of the mental ill patients. This Nurse Ratchet is about control and manipulation of the weak, emasculating the patients with shame - or as she likes to put it "Cooperation and order." She sees this McMurphy as an immediate threat to her domain.
The point of view of Dale Wasserman's stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the narrative voice of the strong and silent Chief Bromden (Austin Durant). Assumed deaf and mute, Bromden communes nightly with his dead father, depicted in the production by Durant standing isolated under a harsh twisting spotlight while eerie, metallic drones give voice to what Bromden calls, "The Combine". The Combine symbolizes all things mechanically and unnatural, such as electric shock therapy in the Disturbed Ward. The unnatural, things without a soul are what destroyed Bromden's father and what he fears the most.
This mental ward is comprised of the usual suspects, as it were. Dale Harding (Tommy Schrider) is the obsessive neurotic, harboring homosexual inclinations which prevent him from satisfying his wife with the giant "knockers". Spastic Martini (Robert Serrell) is a compulsive who feels compelled to close all distances by running full speed from Point A to Point B. That is, when he's not hallucinating a conversation with one of the imaginary people in the room.
Billy Bibbit (Randy Harrison) is a man-boy with a stutter and suicidal tendencies, fueled by feelings of persecution from the outside world that laughs at him and his damning, disapproving mother. Scanlon (Jerry Krasser) is the elderly bombmaker and Ruckly (Stew Nantell), the only Chronic in the ward, is a catatonic with a Christ complex. Ruckly stands "crucified" against the wall everyday, a constant reminder of what happens to patients who do not obey Nurse Ratched.
To say that McMurphy has a kind heart, may be a bit of an overstatement. However, Epstein's portrayal is that of the definitive reluctant hero. He enters into the power play with Ratchet strictly as a gambling man, as an amusement and what he thinks is easy money. But he never intended for his sense of morality to engage. Several times the McMurphy character forsakes the cause of empowering the inmates when he reexamines what he personally has to lose. But in the end, he can't help but stand up for those who can not stand up for themselves. Or as Chief Bromden so eloquently put it, "How can I be big if you're not?"
McMurphy's ultimate display of defiance is to throw a party where his hooker friend Candy (played by the lovely Crystal Bock) will relieve Billy Bibbit of his virginity.
The face off between McMurphy and Ratchet is a good one. Epstein and Hamilton seem equally matched in their metaphoric roles of good and evil, conformity versus free-spiritedness, with each character possessing their own unique devices to win the favor and minds of the patients on the ward. Even until late in the second act, you're not sure who is going to win this war of wills (unless of course you come in knowing how it ends).
All of the inmate performances were sufficiently accompanied by physical ticks from knit-picking and thread chewing to the classic random screaming of expletives. However, for me, Tommy Schrider is the stand out star of this ensemble.
As the hyper-neurotic Dale Harding, he is the leader, the spokesman and "Biggest Nutjob" in the ward; that is until McMurphy comes along. And even after, Schrider's Harding is a contradiction whose body crumbles into a cower on cue one moment, then manages to credibly grows a backbone right in the nick of time. He is forgivable flamboyant and surprisingly lucid if you can just follow along on his rants until he gets to the end of his flowery expositions. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of Schrider's performance. Well done.
Perhaps the best compliment to performance was given during the "talk back" session with the actors following the July 16th show. An audience member said "Where is that middle-aged gentlemen from the second act. I don't see him up on stage there. He was really great."
As it turns out, the actor was on stage. That compliment was extended to Alabama State Grad Anthony Mark Stockard. The actor performed a dual role as young, menacing Aide Williams, and hunched over, elderly night Aide Turkle whose rich a cappella renditions of 60s pop tunes (such as Fatso Domino's Blueberry Hill) was a delightful dab of sweetness within the play. It's true, he was very good. I look forward to seeing more of Stockard's work (playing young or old).
Kudos to Karl Eigisti's scenic design where chain-link fencing feigned the illusion of stained glass against lavender colored "glass" and a day room in a mental institution where the color, and the life of the space are slowly fading away.
J Hagenbuckle's sound design does a splendid job of tracking Chief Bromden's spiritual re-awakening. The play's soundtrack moves from the brutal cranking sound of machinery and drones, to the organic bellowing of wind and rushing of water, to the playing of the tribe flute over the course of the two acts. Very nice touch.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the second of four Main Stage productions for the 79th season of the Berkshire Theater Festival. The show is currently running through July 28, 2007.
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Photo Credit: Kevin Sprague