Review: ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ at Laurel Mill Playhouse

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Jen Sizer and produced by Maureen Rogersopened September 7 at the Laurel Mill Playhouse. Written by Dale Wasserman (based on Ken Kesey’s novel), the landmark drama reflects the repressive environments of state psychiatric hospitals in the middle part of the 20th century. This is not quite bedlam. The use of psychiatric medicines had already become part of the treatment plan. However, depending on where you lived, electric shock therapy and even frontal lobotomies (removal of part of the frontal lobe of the brain) were still in practice, especially for violent patients.

Daniel Johnston as Billy Bibbitt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, now playing at Laurel Mill Playhouse. Photo by Marge McGugan.
Daniel Johnston as Billy Bibbitt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, now playing at Laurel Mill Playhouse. Photo by Marge McGugan.

When One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was playing off-Broadway in 1971, I was working at a state hospital in New York and went to see the show with my co-workers. We could not help but note the similarities of the characters in the play to our patients and fellow staff members. The professional cast, which included Danny DeVito, captured the quirks and essence of the human beings we treated at our facility. The staff also often showed personality changes the longer they worked in this environment. Behaviors often surfaced from the constant stress. In the 1980s and ’90s, psychiatric hospitals began to empty out their units. Many closed and those that remained were shells of the huge bureaucratic institutions of Kesey’s time.

The play is timeless both as a reminder that we would like to fade from our memories, and also as a symbol of the abuses of power. These patients could be inmates, prisoners of war, residents in a group home or foster care. It shows how those in charge can create a climate of fear and distrust. They can force you to act against your own best interests with fear both physical and mental. It also deals with the strength of the human spirit to rise above the fear and pain.

Stephen M. Deininger plays the central character Randle Patrick McMurphy. Deininger is well known in the area as a fine actor. He is a great McMurphy. He makes us love this minor criminal very quickly as McMurphy’s warmth, strength and humor light up the stage.

Jane Steffen plays the difficult role of Nurse Ratched. She is the villain, foreboding in any scene–a manipulator and a masochist. Steffen, although a little younger than I have seen Ratched played in other productions and the movie, exposes the uptightness of her personality and her meanness.

The hidden star of this show is Adam Garrison as Chief Bromden. Garrison’s character exhibits the most growth in this play. When we first see the Chief, he is thought to be catatonic.  The audience knows from his soliloquies that he is not. Garrison, who is a standup comic, transforms the Chief from an isolated individual to a flawed but social being.

Timothy Sales plays the head of the Patient’s Council, Dale Harding. Harding is articulate but mentally castrated by his wife and now by Ratched. Sales brings enough small idiosyncrasies to allow us to believe that Harding, despite his verbal skills and apparent self-assuredness, is really a vulnerable individual.

Daniel Johnston, who will be directing the next play at LMP, Spider’s Web by Agatha Christie, delivers a powerful performance as Billy Bibbitt. Bibbitt is also cowed totally (but by a domineering mother who is never seen), and Ratched gleefully steps into that role in his life. We watch as Bibbitt tries to get some spine as well as when he is literally brought to his knees by Ratched.

Filling out the ward are Lenny Dinerman as Frank Scanlon, the mad but incapable bomber, Jon Swift as the likable Cheswick, Terri Laurino as the fearful Martini and John Cholod as the lobotomized Ruckley who now lives his days plastered to the wall in a Christ on the Cross pose. These actors truly become their characters and capture the bleakness of their situation. Cholod, particularly, has the very difficult job of seeming human, but only barely, for the length of the show.

Lenny Dinerman as Frank Scanlon in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, now playing at Laurel Mill Playhouse. Photo by Marge McGugan.
Lenny Dinerman as Frank Scanlon in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, now playing at Laurel Mill Playhouse. Photo by Marge McGugan.

Patrick Pase gives a nuanced performance as Dr. Spivey. Spivey is humane but often manipulated by Ratched. Pase makes us understand that to Spivey this is still just a job. He may be more humane, but Ratched has been around for 20 years. She actually lives at the institution. He is never invested enough to prevent the abuses even when he knows they are wrong. Aides Warren and William (Michael Keating and Brock Brown respectively), are just brutish enough to believe they would carry out Ratched’s orders. Anne Hull and Ann Henry ably play the other two nurses, and Marge McGugan plays the Technician.

Candy Starr (Nora Zanger) and Sandra (Sami Peterson) both visit the ward as friends of McMurphy. Zanger’s performance as the sexy and caring Starr is another standout. Peterson is both rightly confused, fearful but still a little slutty.

This is a hard play to direct, especially on a small stage, but Jen Sizer does a superior job.  She has allowed her actors to develop very believable characters and still has many memorable visual moments. I appreciated how she staged the baseball scene. I felt like I was right in the room.

As in many community theater productions, the director is the Set and Technical Designer. Sizer’s set is a believable psychiatric unit, cold, drab and lacking warmth. She and Marge McGugan are responsible for the costumes, makeup and hair designs. I appreciate that the costumes were from the era of the book and play–the white-capped nurse has almost disappeared today. Lori Bruun does an admirable job as Stage Manager.

Whether you have seen this play before on stage or have seen the Academy Award-winning movie, you should see this production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The actors and director give you insights from the perspective of today’s world. You’d be crazy to miss it.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest plays through Sunday, September 30th at Laurel Mill Playhouse— 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 617-9906, or go online.