I wonder why a new, energetic theatre company with a progressive, lively mission would choose a stage worn vehicle like Dale Wasserman’s 1963 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to introduce itself to Dallas area audiences, but there it is. In 1962, civil rights in the U.S. didn’t exist for much of anybody who wasn’t white, male, straight and rich. Divorce wasn’t discussed openly. Nobody mentioned their gay uncle or aunt, and the mentally ill were institutionalized and largely forgotten. Abuse of asylum inmates by guards or staff? Not acknowledged any more than priest pedophilia. So when Ken Kesey’s bold novel about inmate abuse, human dignity and mercy killing and Wasserman’s 1963 stage adaptation emerged, both must have caused considerable stir. By the 1970’s the subjects were not quite so taboo; still it required a major star like Jack Nicholson with a director like Milos Forman to turn the work into a hot film property.
The script trudges along episodically, reflective of the style and urgency of situational drama, on stage or on TV, of the era. Today’s audiences are geared to speed and intensity in performance, hard to pull out of a script from another era’s reality. The conflict turns on the build of dramatic tension between the main inmate McMurphy and the ward’s dominatrix, Nurse Ratched, and her minions, the ward staff/abusers. If that chemistry doesn’t build, the play can seem pretty flat. Theatre of North Texas’ production gives the work an honest shot and succeeds in providing an interesting entertainment that allows local performers to explore non-traditional characters effectively. Dennis Canright directs with a clear, steady vision but not much suspense-generating initiative.
Strongest performances come from Jeff Burleson as McMurphy, alternating between simmer and swagger with anarchy-inspiring facility, and R. Andrew Aguilar, as McMurphy’s mostly silent sideman, Chief Bromden. Between his tortured, manic soliloquies, directed as asides to the audience, and his stealthy emergence as McMurphy’s ally, Aguilar builds a nuanced character with a well-defined arc, human and yet poetic as the book author intended.
I understand the desire to direct the play’s villain Nurse Ratched restrained, rather than turn her into a blustering harpy. In keeping his Ratched contained, Canright pulled his actor away from the fray. Leslie Boren gave a focused, icy cold performance that made her remote, less threatening. No one onstage seemed terrified of her. The character’s manipulative drive to acts of cruelty never surfaced. Ratched is a monster and needed to show it. At the point she goads McMurphy into physical assault, the audience should feel revengeful relief. Instead I felt sympathetic towards her plight. Overpowered by a disrespectful, out of control man? Please lobotomize him, now. Still, the final moment soars most dramatically. Chief Bromden commits a horrifying but needed act of mercy before escaping out an open window. Aguilar’s Bromden seemed like some brutish angel spreading invisible wings, set free, inspired by his dead friend McMurphy to humanize a cruel world. And that made it real theatre.
A promising start for a new company with an interesting ensemble and strong leads. I look forward to seeing more depth and 21st century drama in future productions.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was performed at the Firehouse Theatre in Carrollton. See TheatreOfNorthTexas.com for future productions.