One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey. Directed by Eric Hill
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Ken Kesey Memorial; photo: J. Peter Bergman
In Eugene, Oregon, I discovered during an early June visit, there is a memorial statue to the writer, Ken Kesey. He is seated on a bench reading to children. Presumably he is NOT reading excerpts from his scathing novel about the treatment of mental patients in an institution just invaded by a faker named Randle P. McMurphy, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." For a perspective in the play, read on.
"...working to restore you to the outside."
Go inside the mind of an Indian chief who has been diminished by the world he knows into a hulking shell of a man, a shell that communicates internally but not externally. See the world of denial through his eyes and experience the lust of a man for size, and nothing more, the restoration of his stature in the world. That is what Dale Wasserman, the playwright who brought us this adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, would like us to know, from the inside out. He wants us to feel what this indian chief feels. He finally allows us to know the reasons why Chief Bromden has taken refuge inside himself, behind his mind, behind his abilities. One more thing this playwright and novelist team have accomplished: they bring the chief a gift, a man named McMurphy, a gift in human form who opens the doorway to his capabilities, his capacities to achieve stature. It’s an incredible gift.
In its initial run on Broadway the gift was played by Kirk Douglas, a man whose notorious grin has been seen on the face of maniacs; it was a smile that gave away his own character’s madness. In the movie, Jack Nicholson in the same role brought that overly familiar grimace that nowadays screams "Here’s Johnny" to anyone familiar with his other edge of madness role in that Stephen King film.
On the mainstage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival we have Jonathan Epstein who embraces the role of McMurphy with a full face smile that is sometimes one of genuine amusement, sometimes a cover for other emotions. In fact, that smile may be as memorable as the other two in my memory because of its variation, its ability to astound, confuse or ingratiate. Epstein’s smile, his grin, his grimace is the key to his interpretation of this role and it is one of the finest performances of his local career.
He is joined by an exceptional cast in this large cast show. Linda Hamilton, with a smile of her own that seems to convey anything but amusement, is Nurse Ratched. Her control, both of her emotions and her intent, is alarming as she warmly encourages participation from the inmates in her ward of the asylum while already prepared to bring them down with her concept of discipline. Hamilton is startlingly strong as she encourages McMurphy to fail by insisting that he succeed. She is almost, but never quite, a charmer.
Austin Durant as Chief Bromden almost walks away with the show. This actor has become one of my favorites in just two seasons. I am pleading with the management of the BTF to promise me and the public that they will always find a role for him in each and every season. As the man who want to restore himself but has no tools to use, he is both compelling and engaging. His power is not in his size but in his honesty. Even the craziest internal monologues he has a genuine spirit that carries his performance to a higher plane of reality. Once he becomes a participant in the plot of the play he rips our hearts to shreds as he engages with his cohorts and finds himself again.
That emotional resolution is denied to Billy Bibbit, played with warmth and with physical frustrations by Randy Harrison in what I think is his finest work on this stage. He has a moment in the second act where his Billy is almost whole again and when he loses it, crumples it up and throws it away at the feet of Nurse Ratched, it is one of the most touching and heart-rending moments in this highly emotional play.
Crystal Bock is a wonderful Candy Starr, the prostitute who "mock-marries" Billy. Robert Serrell is a wonderful Martini, making us see what he sees. E. Gray Simons, III turns Cheswick’s anger and angst into mini-monuments that crumble into dust the instant they are erected. Tommy Schrider give Dale Harding all of the peculiarities he can, both physical and vocal and leaves an indelible impression. The entire ensemble delivers nicely. It’s a joy to watch them play out their mental and physical disabilities.
But at the center of it all is McMurphy. Epstein’s performance, as already noted, is his very best work in a long time. Under Eric Hill’s classic direction of this play, McMurphy takes second place to the indian chief, a balance that has been hard to achieve in previous productions. Hill and Epstein allow him to be the fulcrum in this eerie balance board of a work. Often taking center stage for his bigger moments, he melds into the picture when necessary. Hill brings Bromden to the forefront slowly over time, even though we are seeing the whole McMurphy experience through the chief’s eyes. When he and McMurphy finally connect it is moving and when they play their final scene together, mute and emotional, it is devastating.
This is tough theater. This is hard, biting satirical drama. There are laughs, but they are often uncomfortable laughs. There are tears, but they linger behind the eyes. There is sense in all the nonsense and silliness in the tragedies that shouldn’t be. There are also cliches, but what are those if not realities we’re accustomed to in our own lives. Reality is on the stage in Stockbridge and it's alive with possibility.
Randy Harrison and Jonathan Epstein as Billy Bibbit and Randle P. McMurphy; photo: Kevin Sprague
Linda Hamilton as Nurse Ratched; photo: Kevin Sprague
Epstein and Austin Durant as McMurphy and Chief Bromden; photo: Kevin Sprague
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest plays through July 28 at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, MA. Ticket prices range from $37 - $64. For complete schedule and availability call the box office at 413-298-5576 or visit www.berkshiretheatre.org.