There’s no mistaking Ken Kesey’s intentions in his landmark 1963 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Ostensibly about the effects of a small-time con artist on the patients
of a mental hospital, the book is really a stunning indictment of the
crushing effects of society on the individual. Just a year after the
book was published, a stage adaptation by Dale Wasserman, starring
Hollywood heavyweight Kirk Douglas as lead character Randle P.
McMurphy, sputtered on Broadway. The play didn’t garner a reputation
until the smashing 1971 off-Broadway revival with a cast of unknowns
(including a young Danny DeVito), which gave the play the hippie-gothic
Douglas, who owned the movie rights,
tried for years to get a film version off the ground, until he was
finally too old for the leading role. He finally gave the rights to his
son Michael, who produced Milos Forman’s 1975 film that gave Jack
Nicholson his first Academy Award and also a statuette to the unknown
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. In 2000, Chicago’s Steppenwolf
Theater sent a production starring Gary Sinise as McMurphy to Broadway and the West End.
To be honest, Cuckoo’s Nest can
be a lumbering affair. Paring down the phantasmagoric quality of
Kesey’s novel into linear conventional drama, Wasserman’s script leans
heavily on B-movie images of horror-show mental hospitals slathered
over with paint-by-numbers symbolism. Happily, the current Appleseed
Productions staging at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave.,
moves almost gracefully across the stage. Under Dustin Czarny’s nimble
direction, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a thoroughly satisfying piece of theater.
As in the novel, hustler McMurphy has
himself committed to enjoy some comfortable downtime in a mental
hospital. Once there, he finds a society of frightened men dominated by
Nurse Ratched, also known as Big Nurse, who easily keeps her wounded
charges under control. Virtually emasculated by the force of facile
Freudian psychology, the patients, including Chief Bromden, a silent
giant of an Indian, stuttering virginal Billy Bibbit, and the
milquetoast Harding, who speaks for the group, find a savior in Mac,
who eventually treads the path that all saviors do.
Randle P. McMurphy may be the role J.
Brazill has been working up to for years. McMurphy is all the two-bit
cons and sleaze-bags he’s played on local stages distilled into one
solid and sympathetic package. Looking like Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto,
Brazill blows onto the stage like a bracing wind. Rocking on his heels
and furiously chewing gum, he generates real dramatic energy as
McMurphy sets about liberating the ward.
Requiring an actor that can subtly
render maliciousness masking as efficient professionalism, Nurse
Ratched may be the most difficult role in Cuckoo’s Nest.
Theresa Constantine is a bit tentative in the early scenes where
Ratched cruelly subverts the patients’ progress, but once her battles
with McMurphy take center stage, she becomes a quietly formidable
embodiment of Kesey’s themes.
In his work with Brazill, John Brackett
provides some stirring moments as mountainous Chief Bromden, especially
in a bit leading to the rebels’ punitive electroshock therapy. However,
in the monologues that begin each scene, Brackett endows the character
with an ultra-theatrical diction—beatnik poet with a hint of Elvis—that
clouds the chief’s simple mysticism.
For his supporting cast, Czarny has
assembled a crackerjack pack of Central New York character actors who
gleefully munch away at the scenery. Cuckoo’s Nest can bear the
set-chomping, inasmuch as Act One depends on the antics of the band of
lovable loonies. Rick Signorelli as Cheswick, Jon Wright as Scanlon,
and Michael Spinoso Jr. as Martini display an impressive array of tics
and compulsions. Paul Gundersen brings a discomforting nervous
intensity to failed husband Dale Harding. Properly baby-faced as Billy
Bibbit, Daniel Rowlands expertly traces the unfortunate young man’s
brief rise and fall.
Hooker, lines and boinker: Daniel Rowlands and Wendy Sikorski in Appleseed Productions’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The outsiders are no less impressive. As
the hooker Candy Starr, mini-skirted Wendy Sikorski makes a memorable
entrance. Jon Wilson and Mickennon Wilson, nattily outfitted with white
bow ties as the ward’s orderlies, circle Nurse Ratched like the flying
monkeys hovering around the Wicked Witch of the West. Tom Minion,
looking like a startled stork, is a properly befuddled Dr. Spivey, who
is no match for Big Nurse.
Alternately comic, moving, and tragic, Appleseed’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a welcome example of fine ensemble acting in community theater.
This production runs through Feb. 7. See Times Table for information.