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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Cutting Edge Production of
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
With a Great Ensemble Cast

Also see Richard's reviews of Striking 12

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Chris Phillips and
Rachel Klyce

Actors Theatre of San Francisco is currently presenting Dale Wasserman's emotional One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, based on Ken Kesey's novel. This marks the fourth time I have seen this challenging drama. I saw the original Broadway production at the Cort Theatre in December 1963 with Kirk Douglas playing the rebel Randle P. McMurphy. The reviews were so-so and it ran only 82 performances. I also saw the great revival in 1971 at the Mercer-Hansberry Theatre with William Devane playing the irresistible McMurphy. Kirk Douglas' son Michael loved the play so much that he purchased it for the screen, and Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher walked off with the Oscars for the film in 1975. Marin Theatre also did a sterling production of the drama several years ago that I enjoyed.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a forerunner of the countercultural bang in the late '60s. All of the action takes place in the ward of a state mental hospital somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. At the time, shock treatments were the norm for calming patients down, and frontal lobotomies were being used on patients who were uncontrollable. The main characters, McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, were meant to be microcosms of the society in the late '60s. In fact, they are microcosms of today's society in these turbulent times. McMurphy represents the elevated beauty of freedom in contrast to Nurse Ratched's persistent insistence on obedience and conventionality.

Randle McMurphy (Christian Phillips), a convict and con man, tries to trick his way out of prison work by submitting to observation at a mental asylum. His persistent challenge to the system, embodied in the tyranny of the impassive Nurse Ratched (Rachel Klycee), eventually becomes an inspiration for his fellow patients to regain the courage to the face the world outside. The novelist and the playwright's searing exploration of the psychosocial dynamics of a group of patients in a mental institution studies the paradoxes at the heart of America attitudes toward social responsibility.

I have seen the role of McMurphy played in various ways, from a sly and intelligent man to a raging beast of a person. Christian Phillips (co-founder of Actors Theatre) emphasizes the aggression with a suggestion of frailty or heartbreak. His McMurphy is a verbose, wild and crazy redneck who loves booze and women. Rachel Klycee plays the role of Nurse Ratched like a strong Catholic nun I had in high school. She is a dominating mother figure who is a castrating harpy and speaks in a monotone voice throughout the production.

Cuckoo's Nest's ensemble is outstanding, and all keep their characters completely in focus even when they are in the background. Particularly excellent is John Paul Goorjian as the virgin Billy Bibbet. He never is out of character as he stutters and moves in a shaking and nervous manner throughout the drama. Even his scene when he begs Nurse Ratched not to tell his mother of his first sexual experience with a woman is beautifully accomplished. Michael Medici is first-rate as Dale Harding, the head of the ward, a mousy man who does not want to rock the boat in the ward.

Marshall Harwell, Graham Cowley, Alain Villeneuve and Joe Madero all fill their roles capably as fellow patients. Indian Chief Bromden is played by first-time actor Michael Speyser, and it is an impressive debut. Kimberly Bridges gives a wildcat performance as McMurphy's girlfriend Candy Starr. Scott Jaicks gives a nice performance as the weak-willed Dr. Spivey; Joseph Silva, Wayne Stibling , Kisa Watson and Myers Clark give good performances in their small roles.

Keith Phillips and Tim Waddell have orchestrated the play's chaotic scenes effectively with only brief blackouts. Set designer Biz Duncan has set up a natural community room one would see in a state run mental institution with a glass enclosed nurse's station.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest runs through December 18th at the Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-296-9179 on online at www.ticketweb.com. For more information, visit www.actorstheatresf.org. Their next production is Lillian Hellman's The Autumn Garden, opening in January.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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