With Director Greg Bell at the helm, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made a strong premiere at Audrey Herman’s Spotlighters Theatre Friday night. Written by Dale Wasserman and adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey, the play is centered around the escalating battle of wills between patient Randle Patrick McMurphy, a criminal who’s mistakenly assumed that fulfilling his sentence at a mental hospital will be easier than the workhouse, and Nurse Ratched, a cruel woman who rules over her patients through fear and manipulation.
The eternal challenge for any show at Spotlighters is how to best use such a small stage. Alan Zemla, set designer for this and many other Spotlighters productions, knows this theater well and uses that knowledge to full effect to give the audience an immersive experience. Every inch of usable space is transformed to resemble a hospital dayroom. The walls and pillars are painted a cool green that’s simultaneously calming and slightly nauseating. A nurses station occupies one corner of the room, and a window with bars across it another. The floor has been painted to convincingly resemble spackled tiles. Motivational posters espouse platitudes such as “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” while rule notices such as “No feeding squirrels from the window” litter the walls. The props are few. All this combines to create a Spartan atmosphere that’s a little silly, a little somber, and more than a little sinister.
Lighting Director Fuzz Roark and Sound Designer Heiko P. Spieker II managing are masters of atmosphere. The lights are subtle and striking in turn, enhancing the scenes, and when combined with sound effects, serve to make the audience toe that fragile line of sanity. Costumes, under the direction of Amy Bell, are straightforward, utilitarian, and period appropriate.
Period is an important factor to keep in mind, considering that electro-shock therapy and frontal lobotomies have long been disproved as effective methods of treatment. It also helps viewers palate some elements of the play that haven’t aged well. In this age of growing awareness about sexual assault, the almost careless mentions of rape and the constant harassment of Nurse Flynn can be jarring. But in the hands of this cast, the connection that these men are in this hospital for a reason is never too far behind.
And what a cast it is! Suzanne Young is perfectly cold and in control as Nurse Ratched; it was a true pleasure to hate her for two and a half hours. Rob Oppel convincingly and naturally brought the character of McMurphy from hell-raising conman to a caring, selfless force for good. I can’t give enough praise for the patients, who took their characters individual brands of crazy and made them their own. Jose Reyes Teneza and Michael McGoogan, who play the patients’ council President Dale Harding and suicidal stutterer Billy Bibbitt respectively, give particularly impressive performances.
Additional kudos go out to Jim Baxter as Martini and Frederick Frey as Ruckly for sheer physicality. As Martini, Baxter never stops moving, and Frey spends what must feel like a lifetime standing perfectly still as his character believes himself to be crucified to a wall. Devin McKay and Aaron Hancock were delightfully violent as the aides, and their hatred for the patients was visceral.
But it’s Nathan Parry who brings the heart to this show. Playing the gentle giant, Chief Bromden, he speaks movingly of the way people can be beaten down, dehumanized, made small. It’s through him that the true nature of McMurphy’s stand against Nurse Ratched is revealed, both to the audience and to McMurphy himself.
A few notes. The recorded monologues for Chief Bromden could stand to be just a smidge louder. I felt like I was losing so much of the Chief’s character in those few moments, because his were the first lines of the play and I could barely make them out. By Act 2, the volume seemed to be at a good level, but it needs to be there from the beginning. And on the subject of volume, Amy Bell and Lauren Schneider as McMurphy’s prostitute friends could also stand to be a little louder. Both actresses gave funny, lively performances, which were sadly undermined by uneven vocal projection. I am confident that this problem was rectified before last night’s performance.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is equal parts funny and tragic, dark but hopeful. We’re shown what happens when someone stands up to do the right thing in the face of impossible odds, to do the right thing if only to show that it can and must be done. Sometimes, the bad guy wins; McMurphy does indeed pay the price for fighting the Combine, as Bromden calls it. But what we’re shown by the final act is that, regardless of who wins, we are not unmoved when someone stands up for humanity. Now it lies with us to continue that fight.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.