The inmates have taken over the asylum at 2nd Story Theatre in Warren, and thankfully I’m not talking about rogue actors wreaking havoc in the joint—rather that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, Dale Wassermann’s award winning adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, is onstage at the theater right now through April 7.
This story is a modern American classic and though many may remember the Academy Award-winning movie with Jack Nicholson, “Cuckoo’s Nest” provides the sort of riveting and visceral experience that is best seen live. This is the sort of emotional roller coaster ride that plays much better on the stage than on either screen or page.
Ken Kesey’s novel is set in an Oregon Mental Institution in 1962 and is very much a product of its time, as well as the author’s own life and times. Kesey himself worked as an orderly during the graveyard shift of a psychiatric hospital in Menlo Park, California where he not only got to know the patients but where he took part in experiments involving hallucinogenic drugs. Moreover, “Cuckoo’s Nest” is but one part of an artistic movement that rebelled against the conformity inherent in the post-war American consumerist society.
In this eternal struggle between total control and utter chaos, the focal point of contention is new arrival Randall Patrick McMurphy. As befits his initials, McMurphy is the embodiment of sheer, relentless energy, a force of human nature that cannot be denied. And it is here where the story takes an interesting, ironic twist. For what we witness becomes not only a tale of good-old American rebellion against a rigged system, but a wholly religious parable: a story of a savior, self-sacrifice and redemption. The irony lies in the fact that those here whom we are accustomed to think of as ‘good’ are either evil or indifferent, and it is the societal outcasts that we are used to thinking ill of who possess saving graces.
This epic struggle between eternally opposed forces, set within the confines of a mental institution, has been staged with both a sense of heightened realism and a great deal of psychological insight by Mark Peckham. The requisite realism has been delivered in part by the ingeniously specific set design of Trevor Elliott. Florescent lights cast a stark light upon the crumbling brick walls of our Sanitarium, those walls painted in eerie tones of sickly yellow and green. The institutional effect here is reminiscent of a dilapidated Elementary School of the era, standing within its confines onstage I feel at all times a foreboding sense of impending doom.
You’ll note I wrote ‘standing onstage.’ Full disclosure demands that I mention that I play one of the patients in this “Cuckoo’s Nest,” namely a nervous Nellie named Charles Cheswick. This is immensely gratifying to me, as I am privileged to share the stage with an incredibly talented group of actors.
Narrating a play while feigning to be both deaf and dumb ain’t easy but it is a task that seems to come naturally to Jason Quinn, who portrays Chief Bromden. Mr. Quinn is an actor who can speak eloquent volumes without saying a word and his soulful countenance onstage is a marvel to behold. It is not so much that he feels, vividly, the terror of his situation and his deep fear of being assimilated into ‘The Combine’—it is that he makes you in the audience feel it so acutely, too.
The show is sharpened considerably by Kevin Broccoli, who, as the acid-tongued and quick-witted patient Dale Harding, is, ironically, the sole voice of reason onstage. Tim White makes for a wonderful Billy Bibbit, both his stutter and fearful mother fixation seeming wholly real. Jeff Church makes the lobotomized Ruckley the sort of Frankenstein’s monster who is both fearsome and absolutely empathetic. There something wonderfully winsome about how the pair of bimbos portrayed by Emily Lewis and Tray Gearing just seem so sweet and inherently goodhearted.
The live wire McMurphy, rebel and everyman, is played by the lively and wiry Aaron Morris, an actor who manages onstage to embody sheer anarchy in a fashion that is both eminently friendly and infectious. Appearing in virtually every scene onstage it is his task to drive the show, a task he achieves with pedal to the metal.
If McMurphy is the play’s motor, the face of the institution itself is Nurse Ratched. Totalitarianism is all the more terrifying and insidious when it is served up with a winning smile and it is to that end that Tanya Anderson lends a chilling and shining countenance onstage. The actress is brilliantly adept at embodying the figurative starched white glove over the iron fist, and manages simultaneously to embody both sweetness and sheer strength of implacable will.
The spirit that inspires rebellion against tyranny, the impetus we all feel at times to ‘rage against the machine’ is timeless and eternal. And the feelings that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” inspire in audiences, though the play is set in a specific time and place, can never become dated. This I know from the cheers and ovations that our little band of “cuckoos” are receiving from audiences every night that we perform. Catch the spirit of rebellion at 2nd Story Theatre now before it’s too late.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is playing at 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St., Warren, through April 7. Performances Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets: $25; under 21: $20. For more information: 401/247-4200; boxoffice@2ndStoryTheatre.com; www.2ndStoryTheatre.com