Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was such a dramatic indictment of the culture of the time that it was made into a play the very next year, adapted by Dale Wasserman. Jack Nicholson's performance as the larger-than-life central character in the 1975 movie is what most people remember about it, but 2nd Story Theatre is managing to make the troublingly entertaining tale its own (through April 7).
ADVERSARIES Morris and Anderson in Cuckoo’s Nest.
Randle Patrick McMurphy (Aaron Morris) is the self-described "bull goose loony," newly arrived in a psychiatric ward that, it soon becomes clear, is a stand-in for society at large. Conformity is the issue, in the guise of not disrupting the compliant order of the "therapeutic community," as the powers that be would put it. The supreme power in this little microcosm is Nurse Mildred Ratched (Tanya Anderson), a martinet who seems to think her lust for power is for her patients' benefit.
She observes them from the remote confines of a large glass booth, isolated as though she and her nervous, crucifix-clenching assistant (Amy Thompson) could catch madness from the varied assembly under observation. Set and lighting designer Trevor Elliott has an appropriate contrast for us across from that: dirty warehouse-high windows with jail-like vertical bars.
Only one of the eight is psychotic — the bald, bent Ruckley (Jeff Church), who sporadically snarls, "Fuck 'em all!" Billy Bibbit (Tim White), sporting a wrist bandaged from his latest suicidal cry for help, is pretty chipper for someone so clearly disturbed, though he cowers at every suggestion that Nurse Ratched might tell his mother he's been a bad boy. Martini (Chris Conte) seems happy, and even scowling, stringy-haired Scanlon (Tom O'Donnell) and nervous Cheswick (F. William Oakes) find plenty to break into smiles about. One of them is even a voice of reason; calm, articulate Dale Harding (Kevin Broccoli), always making astute observations about the proceedings. At one point he defends Nurse Ratched as someone honestly trying to help them, but his monologue eventually breaks off into calling her a ball breaker and the patients rabbits.
Chief Bromden (Jason Quinn) appears to be psychotic. The tall, imposing son of a tribal chief looks to be catatonic, just standing mutely. But at the play's opening and periodically afterward he speaks his private thoughts, which center around his fear of "The Combine," an organization designed to crush nonconformity, with this hospital being one of its instruments. The spirited encouragement that McMurphy brings to the group soon gives Bromden the only hope he's had in his 10 years there.
Nurse Ratched's cruelty dressed up as "caring" is clearly on display in the daily group meetings she supervises, in which the patients are encouraged to recognize each other's vulnerabilities and attack, shaming their friends to help them.
But she's met her match in McMurphy, whose gambling for cigarettes, then for money, culminates in betting the group that he can work on her imperturbable calm and turn it into sputtering rage inside a week. His ultimate challenge has begun.
Director Mark Peckham has tweaked these performances well toward perfection. Morris's McMurphy is as exuberant an exemplar of mischievous vitality as Quinn's Chief is an example of (at first) existential defeat. Anderson's Nurse Ratched is the epitome of self-righteous self-delusion, leaving us to judge when this despot knows she's being mean.