Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play is based on the famed 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, who drew upon his experience working as an aide in a California home for the mentally ill and his participation in government experiments with mind-altering drugs. Kesey's fictionalized face-off between the residents of an Oregon mental institution, led by one Randle P. McMurphy, against the entrenched power structure, represented by Nurse Ratched, signaled a swath of society poised to push back on forces of oppression and exploitation and to free their minds of conventionality. It became one of the touchstones for a decade that spawned a widespread rejection of traditional mores and power structures, a flourish of countercultural lifestyles, and a wave of anti-establishment groups and actions such as the Berkeley free speech movement, freedom riders, Black Panthers, anti-war marches, women's liberation, the American Indian Movement, the grape boycott, Stonewall, Woodstock, and the first Earth Day.
Playwright Wasserman was a fellow iconoclast who spent his teen years hopping freight trains and Los Angeles rooftops. In LA he learned stage lighting skills and worked in film and television, sliding from lighting into directing. At the age of 40, he began writing Golden Age TV dramas, gaining acclaim and an Emmy award. He shared screenwriting credit for the 1958 movie "The Vikings" and when one of that film's stars, Kirk Douglas, bought the stage and screen rights to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," he turned to Wasserman to write the play. The play, starring Douglas, was a 1963 Broadway flop. Wasserman redeemed himself in 1965 writing the book for the beloved musical Man of La Mancha. Cuckoo's Nest went on to a long run in San Francisco and played other regional theaters. It returned to New York in 1971, as an Off-Broadway hit playing 1025 performances (one of which I had the good fortune of seeing).
The 1975 Academy Award winning film version (which neither Kesey nor Wasserman worked on) featured an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson as the rebellious McMurphy. No doubt, for many, this is their main, perhaps only, encounter with Cuckoo's Nest. In contrast to the book and the movie, Wasserman's script, by necessity, reduces the number of McMurphy's fellow residents and keeps the action within the confines of the hospital's day room and in the mind of Chief Bromden, a longtime resident whose voiceover monologues between scenes narrate the larger struggle between individual dignity and the aggregate of power structures he calls "The Combine." The reduced scope of the stage version allows for a sharper focus, and the intimate confines of Artistry's Black Box Theater, where Chameleon's production is running, provides the feeling of being an observer sitting on the other side of the day room, not only seeing and hearing the power play, but feeling its heat.
Director Lauren Diesch has done something else in Chameleon's production to make it really special. Those familiar with Jack Nicholson's McMurphy saw him go toe to toe with co-star Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, near peers in age (in fact, Fletcher is three years older than Nicholson). Nicholson's charisma gave him a leg up in rallying his troops to his cause. Fletcher's Ratched had only the authority of the system on her side, thus the struggle is personal charisma against entrenched authority. Diesch, on the other hand, has cast two actors (both phenomenal) as McMurphy and Ratched with a large age gap. David Wasserman is a very young McMurphy, loose limbed and rather goofy, though retaining the character's expansive friendliness, outrageous go-for-broke attitude, quick wit and short temper. His rise as leader among the band of residents makes him something of a Peter Pan, fighting for the Lost Boys. When his playfulness proves no match for what Chief calls "The Combine," McMurphy must summon up the fortitude to fight against this force. We see him dig deeply, not only for strength but for the courage to stand up for those around him, no matter the price.
Jane Hammill is a dynamite Nurse Ratched, who, by age, could easily be this McMurphy's mother. She uses a well-rehearsed maternal tone to feign (though she seems to believe herself to be genuine) nothing but the best interests of the other residents of the ward. She need only turn to their respective weaknessesnotably, Dale Harding's repressed homosexuality and Billy Bibbit's fear of his mother's disapprovalto have them succumb to her parental "guidance." Her authority stems from her self-appointed maternal role in these men's lives. McMurphy sees through that and calls her bluff. Moreover, he has no need for mothers. He is Peter Pan, avowed to never grow up. Faced with his immunity to her strategy, Hammill shows us the nurse's shellacked benevolence cracking bit by bit, until the monster within is revealed.
While Hammill and Wasserman are the main event of this match, the entire ensemble is truly amazing. Thomas Draskovic, who hails from Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, makes a forceful Chief Bromden, his voiceover monologues expressing an anguished cry, cowering before the Combine that he saw humiliate his native American father. When, in the course of the play, he takes action, we see him rise from his perception of himself as "too small" to fight the Combine, taking on the full stature of a man. Wade Fields captures the pain of a man who cannot give voice to his true nature, and therefore must subject himself to the blows of society. Mitchell Carlyle is heartbreaking as Billy Bibbit, the youngest of the residents, with the greatest chanceit would seemof making it back into the world, but kept imprisoned by an immutable force.
Joel Raney is mesmerizing as Scanlon, constantly carrying a telephone receiver through which he filters his experience in a brilliant bit of stage business Raney himself devised. Jex Arzayus is engrossing as Martini, a war veteran with extreme paranoia and mania, but who deals out the playing cards with abandon. Bryson Hatfield plays pathetic Ruckly, whose past wrongdoings cost him his frontal lobe. He literally hangs around the ward, devoid of life, but he rejuvenates when McMurphy uses him as a human basketball hoop. Kjer Whiting is delightful as Scanlon, whose admiration for McMurphy gives him the aspect of an eager-to-please puppy dog.
For all the railing against the Combine Cuckoo's Nest, Wasserman does not give women a chance to raise their fists (nor does Kesey, in his original). Aside from the castrating Nurse Ratched, we have: Candy Starr, a loose-living party girl and friend of McMurphy, played with game spirit by Gillian Constable; Sandra, Candy's shallow friend who comes along to party with the asylum residents, played by Laura Mason; and Nurse Flinn, also played by Mason, who is cold as ice to the residents and to the ward aides, who think nothing of sexually harassing her. Thus, the female roster on stage is one controlling bitch, one ice princess, and two party girls. Two women spoken of who we never meetHarding's wife and Billy's motherare likewise framed in unflattering lights. No, positive roles for women is not among the virtues of the play.
Kesey's novel and Wasserman's play both have the ward aides identified as black men and depicted with patterned behavior. Wisely, Diesch cast these roles with white actors, removing racial stereotyping from the offenses that mark the play as dated. The other aspect of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that shows its age is the power Nurse Ratched yields. Those were the days before informed consent and due process were mandates. Not that there are no longer any abuses in the field, but the depiction given in Cuckoo's Nest now works as a platform for a parable of struggles between personal freedom and the brokers of power, and not as a cautionary look into the mental health system.
Those reservations aside, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest remains a stirring tale of the danger of abuses (enacted or potential) of power by a small number of controlling forces over the dignity, freedom, and well-being of the masses. Does that message still speak to us? I think so, and mightily. The way in which Nurse Ratched chooses her words, and massages them into messages of concern mirrors the manipulation of the messages that flood across our airwaves and cyberspace. Hats off to Chameleon Theatre Circle for this beautifully realized production of a still engrossing and provocative play.
The Chameleon Theatre Circle's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, through November 11, 2018, in the Black Box Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $25.00; Seniors, students and MN Fringe Button holders: $22.00; Thursday performances, buy one, get one free. For tickets call 952-232-0814 or go to www.chameleontheatre.org.
Playwright: Dale Wasserman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey; Director: Lauren Diesch; Scenic and Props Design: Megan West; Costume Design: Elizabeth Wolfe; Lighting Design: Becky Raines; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; Projection Design: Todd Edwards; Fight Choreographer: Jessica Smith; Rehearsal Stage Manager: Whitney Graff; Performance Stage Manager: Meagan Sogge.
Cast: Jex Arzayus (Martini), Mitchel Carlyle (Billy Bibbit), Gillian Constable (Candy Starr), Christopher J. DeVaan (Aide Williams), Thomas Draskovic (Chief Bromden), Wade Fields (Dale Harding), Jane Hammill (Nurse Ratched), Bryson Hatfield (Ruckly), Laura Mason (Nurse Flinn/Sandra), Andrew Newman (Dr. Spivey), James Radloff (Aide Turkle), Joel Raney (Scanlon), Jonathan Strom (Aide Warren), David Wasserman (Randle P. McMurphy), Kjer Whiting (Cheswick).