This play takes place in a psychiatric ward, a fact that some young people may find confusing. In the 55 years since this play first appeared, the United States began closing down such hospitals, preferring to see potential mental patients enter the field of politics. How’s that working out for us?
Ken Kesey’s novel was a screech against a repressive society that tried to grind down anyone who was a non-conformist. But the subtext deals with how we have all been tranquilized and at times euthanized into submission, as we are maneuvered over and over again into waging war against other countries and at times against ourselves. I will leave it to you to make the obvious connections to our world today.
As for the play itself, written by Dale Wasserman, it feels a bit dated. Electrochock therapy—which is administered to the rebellious Randall P. McMurphy—was seen back then as the most gothic torture imaginable (and it is rendered that way in Aaron Benson’s impressive scenic design). But since then, there have been more positive analyses of that particular therapeutic approach.
The male ward of this “loony bin” is filled with a bundle of characters that are all distinctive in their mental difficulties, and they are performed with admirable precision by the cast under the direction of William Roudebush. Those who are particularly effective are George Roth as the closeted and erudite Dale Harding, Jeremy Gladen as twitchy and mommy-dominated Billy Bibbit, and Tony Zanoni as impulsive Martini. Benjamin Gregorio also turns in a haunting performance as the virtually silent and lobotomized Ruckly.
In the challenging, showpiece role of McMurphy, Bryant Carroll has all the feints and twitches of this larger-than-life character down pat. But those details never truly coalesce into a character who worms his way into his fellow patients’ hearts, and ours.
As a sane man who thought he was putting one over on the system by pretending to be mentally challenged, thereby avoiding hard time on a chain gang, McMurphy should be someone with whom we can all relate. But too often, Carroll relies on a manic laugh and a swaggering strut instead of establishing strong threads of connection between McMurphy and the others.
As his main tormentor Nurse Ratched, Katie DeBoer masterfully commands her charges with a virtually unchanging icy smile/stare that could drop a charging rhino to its knees. But in a similar way to Carroll’s McMurphy, this interpretation of the “big nurse” never goes beyond that splendidly played single note, and never shows a woman with more dimensions. By making her a bit more human, it would actually increase the horror of the situation.
In all, this Cuckoo’s Nest captures many of the aspects of Kesey’s book and Wasserman’s adaptation. But it doesn’t soar quite high enough to momentarily liberate us all from the cages in which we find ourselves.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Through October 8 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org