By Steve Wong
If you’ve only seen the 1975 cinema version of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” you might be a little underwhelmed by Centre Stage’s current production of this American classic. But for theatre purists, it is a much-appreciated staging of how the play is supposed to be presented.
As unfair as it might be to compared a play to a movie, it nevertheless happens. It is this reviewer’s advice to the theatre-going public in Upstate South Carolina to as-best-you-can mentally block out movie stars Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher and open your hearts and minds to a impactful performance that can make you laugh and cry, hate and love, flinch and cheer, and wonder just how in the world the American mental health system could have ever been so screwed up.
Based on the book of the same name by Ken Kesey (that postmodern writer and counterculturalist best known for hanging with and dropping acid with The Grateful Dead), “Cuckoo’s Nest” is about a sane man in a madhouse run by the nurse from hell. It is filled with more mixed nuts than your mama’s cut-glass serving dish at a wedding reception in the basement social hall of a Southern Baptist church. It is a no-win battle of the wills of two people hellbent on destroying each while the peanut gallery of patients suffer in sedation.
From the get-go, Centre Stage’s establishes the conflicted tone of the play. With a 1950s timeframe, the setting is the community room of a mental hospital with robin egg blue walls paired with institutional white, a checkerboard tiled floor, assorted ratty wooden straight-back chairs, and a raised and glass-in nurses station. Actually, there is no glass, which might be bewildering to patrons unfamiliar with clinical environments. It was a time when nurses wore white uniforms, white hose and white sensible shoes. A time when patients were routinely dosed with mind-numbing pills. Overhead, bare light bulbs shine under white pendant light shades. The windows are covered in security fencing.
Initially, refocusing the limelight from main character Randle McMurphy, played by Dave LaPage, to Chief Bromden, played by Nicholas Hawkins, is the biggest difference between the movie and the play, which starts with a monologue by Chief but is quickly followed by McMurphy’s grand entrance. McMurphy is an over-the-top extrovert and petty criminal seeking asylum in a mental asylum to avoid pea-picking on the prison’s work farm. Yes, he’s faking it. Chief is a physically big American Indian who is faking being a deaf mute. His mental illness of talking to his dead “papa” may very well be the result of repeated sessions of electroshock therapy, but these conservations serve the very important function of narrating the play — something the movie left out. Listen carefully to these well presented monologues as they give insightful comment about society’s “combine” that dehumanizes people en masse.
Actor LaPage is excellent in his portrayal of McMurphy. Wearing the iconic black toboggan — in sharp contrast to the clinical white he is often surrounded by — he holds nothing back. He likes to be the center of attention and the instigator of rebellion, and he takes no prisoners in his challenge to get the best of the system, personified by the icy Nurse Ratched, played by Tiffany Nave Stewart.
Playing McMurphy is both physically and emotionally demanding, and LaPage embraces these challenges with zest and a true understanding of a character that wants the most out of life and will stop at nothing to get it. In today’s world of Big Brother political correctness, it was refreshing to hear someone speak his unapologetic mind, the listening establishment be damned.
Hawkins’s character Chief is carefully understated, seemingly always holding back on every possible aspect of life. Obviously afraid and beaten down by the “machine,” Chief spends a lot time just standing silently by the caged windows. But his ever-presence screams loudly to the fact that he is held prisoner in the mental health system with no way out. Hawkins paces himself well in his performance, constantly holding back, but always on the verge. He watches and listens, and in the end is one of the most merciful characters in theatre history.
Undoubtedly, the most famous and hated character in “Cuckoo’s Nest” is Nurse Ratched. According to popular surveys, Nurse Ratched is one of the top villain female characters ever to smile at you as she schedules your frontal lobotomy. During the first act of the play, Stewart rounded out her character with something other than veiled meanness. And she shined brightly as an actor when one of the patients slit his own throat.
Granted, Ratched greatly contributed to poor stuttering Billy’s suicide — she was going to tell his mother that he had sex — but her discovery of the body brought forth the actor’s talent to share personal anguish. Stewart may not play mean as well as some, but she plays a character with at least an ounce of decency extremely well. Additionally, Stewart can roll with the best of them when come to being tackled and choked. Too bad we all wanted her character to die.
The cast of men patients worked well together, each having his own brand of looniness. The standout characters are Dale Harding, played by Jim Tanner, and Billy Bibbit, played by Patrick Fretwell. Both actors were superb as the old guy with repressed women issues, and the young guy with major mommy issues. As you might expect, their relationships with strong-woman Nurse Ratched are weird, to say the least. As an occasional stutter, myself, I can say Fretwell does this stifling disorder better than I would like.
Director Laura Nicholas balanced the comedy and tragedy well, leaving the opening night audience with the intended satisfaction of having witnessed the absurd institutional cruelty that triumphed over the both the rebellious individual and the complacent masses.
“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” continues through November 17 at Centre Stage in Greenville. For ticket visit www.centrestage.org.