By Steve Wong
Spartanburg Little Theatre’s current production of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is a testament to the community theatre’s ever-increasing ability to tackle serious subjects through live storytelling. In this American classic about a man against the machine, the cast and director don’t shy away from the harsh realities of mental illness, imprisonment, suppressed sexuality, and mind control of the people by The Establishment. All though these are tough and longstanding issues in our modern society, SLT allows the often comic absurdity of the play to come through, reminding us that sometimes we laugh to keep from crying.
“The Cuckoo’s Nest” was first a novel by “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” kid Ken Kesey published in 1962, when civil rights and social consciousness were gaining serious traction on the American cultural landscape. A year later, director and producer Dale Wasserman brought the play version of the novel to Broadway featuring actors Kirk Douglas and Gene Wilder for a short two-month run. Since then, the play has been revived on and off Broadway and enjoyed extensive engagements in major American cities and abroad. However, it wasn’t until Hollywood cast Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher in the 1975 cinema version that the story about the horrors of insane asylums was forever stenciled on the American psyche. It is a demanding play that requires its leading roles to be both over-the-top crazy and subtly sinister; in touch with the human spirit and professionally callus to those who need empathy the most.
Taking on those roles in Spartanburg are Josh Wilson as Randle P. McMurphy, a small-time criminal who seeks refuge in a crazy house rather than do hard labor for statutory rape, and Sarah Hurley, as Nurse Ratched, the in-charge nurse who can order a lobotomy with a smile on her face. Both Wilson and Hurley are outstanding in delivering roles that require digging deep into their own personal beliefs. Not a particularly large man, Wilson is always able to draw the attention to himself, as would any wild and crazy guy thrown into a chemically-induced setting of compliance. He sees what is obvious to anyone who is not dazed or crazed — that sitting around all day with fellow lunatics is no way to get better, especially if even the smallest kernel of humanity is doled out sparingly by the embodiment of established and enforced social uniformity: Nurse Ratched. Wilson is an actor with a lot of energy, a wide range of emotion, and a convincing stage presence that allows him to rage against the machine in an almost loveable way. This is his third time on the SLT stage, having taken on equally meaty roles of Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Kaffee in “A Few Good Men.”
Not to be overshadowed by a man, Hurley nails Nurse Ratched with her calm and by-the-book crusade to squash any attempt by the mental patients to be individuals on a true road to recovery. Hurley is a daring woman to take on an understated evil role. Yet, she does it beautifully with all of the required detachment and underlying subversiveness that makes the character a joy to hate. In this day and age, it is hard to cheer for a man who physically attacks a woman, but in this case, we approve, applaud, appreciate. Very quickly, Hurley is becoming an Upstate veteran of the theatre, having been seen in Shakespearean plays, college plays, plays in Greer and Tryon, and in several SLT plays, including “Of Men and Men,” “Mary Poppins,” “Boeing, Boeing,” “The Buddy Holly Story,” and “Chicago.”
There are seemingly no minor roles in “The Cuckoo’s Nest,” as each character has an important and insightful contribution to play. Although the lead roles are truly multi-dimensional, the rest of the characters are purposely flattened to instill measures of identity and expectation. All of the scenes take place in the dayroom of the west coast mental hospital, populated by a group of men with various degrees of instability — if you can call a stuttering virgin with mommy issues unstable. The actors here are a credit to their craft, knowing that limelight only shines when the necessary footlights are properly dimmed and brightened. Many of these actors are regulars at SLT, having established themselves in their own rights: Kenneth Tice, Ryan Barry, Matt Ballard, Mark Stidham, Benjamin Abrams, and Joe Willis. Actresses Elizabeth Colson and Rachel Rhodes certainly liven up the party scene as loose women looking for a good time. And Jim Huber plays the spineless Dr. Spivey, whose half-hearted attempts to assert his medical authority are often undermined by Nurse Ratched.
One of the most important roles in “The Cuckoo’s Nest” is that of Chief Bromden, played by John Lodmell, a long-time fan of local theatre, making his debut. A man of few words, Chief Bromden is both the all-knowing Greek chorus and the victor in a play with few feel-good moments. As a character, Chief Bromden has the universal backstory of the unseen victim; as an actor Lodmell times his development to become pivotal to the play’s success.
It is no secret that Director Jay Coffman has been stretching the boundaries of theatre in Spartanburg for several years now. He is also SLT’s artistic and executive director, giving him a clear shot at infusing healthy diversity into live performances in the conservative Hub City. It is a triumph of his timing and strategy to stage a performance that is internationally well-known, emotionally complex, and socially edgy. “The Cuckoo’s Nest” is serious theatre done well in Spartanburg, and Coffman deserves the credit for taking community theatre to the next level.
This is the second production for the company’s 2017-18 season, having started off on a lighter note with “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” Looking ahead, the season is well-balanced with the musical “Hands On A Hardbody,” the grandmother of strong southern women plays “Steel Magnolias,” the classic musical “Guys and Dolls,” and ending with the fringe musical “Rock of Ages” — demonstrating SLT’s desire and commitment to present all facets of live theatre to Upstate South Carolina.
“The Cuckoo’s Nest” will play one more weekend: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Nov. 10-12, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at Chapman Cultural Center, 200 East Saint John St. in Spartanburg. For tickets, call (864) 542-2787 or visit http://chapmanculturalcenter.org.