One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dan Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, which premiered on Broadway November 13, 1963 and ran for 82 performances with two revivals (off-Broadway, 1971, and Broadway, 2001) and inspired a film version starring Jack Nicholson, premiered on the Chapel Street Players stage Friday evening. Brian M. Touchette (It’s A Wonderful Life) is at the helm of this latest CSP production which has become a modern day American classic. Susan Boudreaux (last seen in Murder on Cue) has taken the assistant director’s chair this time out. OFOTCN stars (in order of appearance), Arthur D. Paul, Chis Hankenson, Stephen M. Ashby, Michael D. Peco, Joe Pukatsch, Michelle Opalesky, Shelli Haynes, Kristin Williamson, Alan Harbaugh, Stephen Ross Ashby, Josh Pelikan, Frank Newton, André Wilkins, Matthew Brown, Scott F. Mason, Pete Matthews, Amy Bucco, and Krista Williams.
The humdrum of an Oregon state mental hospital ward is thrown into chaos when Randle P. McMurphy manages to get himself committed, opting to serve his time “for repeated outbreaks of passion that suggest the possible diagnosis of [a] psychopath” in the institution to avoid hard labor at a work farm. McMurphy believes his sentence will be easier in the hospital, but realizes his error when he clashes with Head Nurse Ratched, a fierce martinet. In defiance, McMurphy takes control of the ward, doing what the medical professionals could not. He inspires a presumed deaf and dumb man to speak, he leads other patients out of introversion, stages a revolt to watch the World Series on TV, and arranges a wild party with booze and floosies. Ratched’s punishment for these transgressions is swift and merciless. This landmark drama highlights the despotic environments in mid-20th century state mental hospitals. Psychiatric medicines had, by then, become part of the treatment plan, but such barbaric practices as electric shock therapy and frontal lobotomies were still practiced, especially in the treatment of violent patients.
Mason is well-known to CSP audiences both on and off the stage. He’s a fine actor and quite likeable as McMurphy, a crass and sarcastic minor criminal who finds ways to challenge Ratched’s strict authority and encourages an uprising. I was somewhat bemused by the raspy, Popeye-like voice with which Mason chose to portray the character and the unexplained, sporadic physical ailment that seems to plague McMurphy, but despite those things, Mason succeeds in winning the audience over, portraying McMurphy’s warmth, humor, and strength of character as he leads the other patients in revolt.
Ratched (Haynes) is the quintessential villain. The Machiavellian head nurse reigns supreme over the asylum, her own personal island of misfit toys. Haynes’ Ratched plays more subtly at first, her counterfeit compassion slowly dissolving, revealing her manipulative and masochistic nature as she bullies her patients—as well as Dr. Spivey (Matthews)—into submission. Haynes plays the tyrannical nurse to perfection with her artificial smile and stoic demeanor, never retreating, even in the face of McMurphy’s most loathsome taunts and pranks.
The ensemble group of inmates in this looney bin is exceptional and they are what allows this drama to flow so easily. Character commitment throughout the production is extraordinary and consistently displayed. Arthur D. Paul delivers a touching performance as Chief Bromdon, a Native American who feigns being a deaf mute for years out of fear that he is not big enough to fight the system. Stephen Ross Ashby (Billie Bibbit) is endearing as a stuttering young man who’s spent his entire life wallowing in self-reproach, feeling he’s a disappointment to everyone, desperately seeking his mother’s approval, and who just wants to find someone who’ll love him. Alan Harbaugh (Harding), Frank Newton (Cheswick), André Wilkins (Martini), and Josh Pelikan (Scanlon) make up the core quintet of the asylum (which includes Billie). Their antics deliver huge laughs such as when Martini deals cards to players he’s hallucinated and licks the erotic playing card Randle shows him. Pelikan is just insanely funny as Scanlon. Kristin Williamson is a hoot as Ratched’s timid nursing assistant, garnering giggles with her fearful outbursts. Amy Bucco, Krista Williams, Michelle Opalesky, Michael D. Peco, and Chris Hankenson all deliver solid performances as Candy Starr, Sandy, and Aides Williams, Warren, and Turkle, respectively. Matthew Brown (Buckley), with his shocking crucifixion poses and side-splitting larks, gains the audience’s full attention without uttering a word. Even Stephen M. Ashby, and Joe Pukatsch (Chronic Patients 1 and 2) were quite effective as “chronics,” all their conditions perfectly articulated physically and emotionally.
Brian Touchette does a fine job directing the production, setting a nice pace to keep the action flowing, making great use of the stage, and managing the large cast. Touchette also designed the set, partnering with Scott Mason, Michelle Cullen, and Pete Matthews among others to bring it from concept to reality. The direction CSP took in designing and building the set was refreshingly different from other productions I’ve seen—slightly nightmarish and industrialized versus pristine and antiseptic. Special effects/Pyrotechnics and video imagery are spectacular, kudos to Ray Barto and Peter Kuo. Lighting and costumes are also first rate.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a sobering American drama packaged as a circus side show that has the audience laughing right up to the mind-altering end. The benefits of theater as therapy cannot be overstated. My prescription is a brief stay at the Chapel Street Asylum. A group therapy session with the resident psycho-ceramics (the cracked pots of mankind) is highly recommended. You’d be crazy to miss One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which runs through September 29th. Call the box office at (302) 368-2248 or visit http://www.chapelstreetplayers.org to reserve your tickets today.