“What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world.” Ken Kesey
In 1959 a Stanford graduate student participated in a government sponsored experiential psychoactive drug study. After ingesting various hallucinogens, Ken Kesey filed his government report and wrote his celebrated novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. From the considerable income and attention generated by the book, Kesey toured the country in a 1939 International Harvester school bus painted with drug inspired day-glo and became a major catalyst for what became known as the Psychedelic Era, heralding the San Francisco hippie scene. The novel was a quintessential anti-establishment statement and was interpreted as a “compelling cautionary tale that viewed society as a cold, formidable negation of all that is free, lusty and nonconformist.”
So how does a stage adaptation of this narrowly focused 1962 novel have relevance for today’s theatre audiences? It’s a stretch, even with adaptation penned by multiple Tony and Emmy award-winning author Dale Wasserman. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest strives valiantly to put fresh bloom on this rainbow-hued vase of withered poppies and largely succeeds, thanks to a strong acting ensemble and the restrained guidance of regional leading director Marianne Galloway. Instead of focusing on the book’s counter-culture polemical duality, Galloway emphasizes the humanity in all the play’s characters, steering her actors clear of oversimplified stereotypes, for the most part.
Consider main character Nurse Ratched. The book portrays this woman supervising the inmates of a psychiatric hospital, the action’s setting, as the embodiment of everything evil in the dominant, repressive government-run culture. The classic 70’s movie with Jack Nicholson did the same; all cheered when the intentionally cruel, all-powerful Nurse Ratched got her comeuppance. In CTD’s production, Galloway has pointed actor Sue Loncar in a different direction. Sue’s Ratched maintains firm control but appears to operate from a belief in “best care” practice, with no trace of sadistic delight at the suffering she doles out. Nurse Ratched juggles supervising recalcitrant, irresponsible, under-qualified staff with caring for a wily collection of voluntarily committed, needy psych ward patients, getting little support from the on staff psychiatrist (played convincingly by Reg Platt), who aspires to become “one of the boys” on the ward. She’s the lone adult voice of sanity and order. Sue’s Nurse is quietly icy and focused, outcome-oriented. She clamps down hard on infractions brought on by the taunting, relentless clowning around of main male character, the grinning misfit McMurphy. To preserve order in the midst of chaos, to do her job, she has no choice.
It’s not the most interesting character I’ve seen Sue Loncar create, but it’s a consistent and believable portrayal. When she returns on stage after McMurphy cracks up and assaults her, her physical discomfort is obvious but her determination to “do her job well” reflects no savage revenge motive. It’s unexpected to consider Nurse Ratched a sympathetic character, but Sue Loncar’s depiction elicits at least empathy.
The shift in Ratched’s portrayal causes a titanic shift in McMurphy. Under Galloway’s direction, Mark Nutter presents him as a self-centered, one-dimensional anti-hero. He’s a “good ol’ boy” in a tight spot, trying to wrest power away from the lady in charge, “just cuz.” If he can scam some spare change off the gullible inmates through gambling in the process, so much the better. He’s also a baldly unrepentant statutory rapist, which distances him further from comic lead or “hero” status. Does he disrupt the lives of the inmates on the ward? Definitely, with dire results. Does his violent attack on Nurse Ratched seem justified? In no way. Does he deserve to have a lobotomy? Probably not. Does the audience sympathize with him? Not much. It’s hard to know if the shift is script or director driven, but it sure changes the show. In the book, his death at the end creates a sense of transcendent release. In this production, it’s a relief he’s gone. Intriguing to watch, I’m not entirely sure it works.
The balance of the cast is a tight ensemble featuring some of the most stage-worthy performers the Dallas region offers. Randy Pearlman as the inmates’ “spokesman” Dale creates a vivid picture of an intelligent man who has chosen to step away from “real world” challenges, curiously more fleshed out than McMurphy. Nye Cooper, Andrews Cope, Ryan Martin, Andrew Bourgeois and Bobby Selah provide a non-stop cacophany of bumbling comic relief and believable psychotic behavior as the gaggle of inmates, effectively defining a reality that has no basis in it, whatsoever. On the other hand, Jim Johnson’s Chief Bromden seems oddly detached from the rest of the production. As the play’s conscience, the agent of transcendence and the only character that “escapes” to the real world, he needs to clearly convey the play’s point, the author’s vision. In this production, he almost fades into the scenery he’s so oddly understated. Director’s decision, dropped line, opening night jitters or scripted that way? Hard to tell.
This isn’t an easy play to stage, given its dated message and apparent reworking of the novel’s core characterizations by the adapter. The full house on opening night seemed to sincerely appreciate the performance. When Ken Kesey died in 2001, his son read this statement at the memorial service: “If there is one thing he would want us to do it would be to carry on his life’s work. Namely to treat others with kindness and if anyone does you dirt forgive that person right away. This goes beyond the art, the writing, the performances, even the bus. Right down to the bone.” Remember that sentiment when you see this production.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman, based on Ken Kesey’s novel, runs through March 1, 2009 at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, 5601 Sears St., Dallas, TX 75206 (one block west of lower Greenville, behind the former Arcadia Theatre). For tickets and directions: http://www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com.