One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Open Eye Productions at Strawdog Theatre (see Fringe & storefront). By Dale Wasserman. Dir. Christopher Maher. With Mark Pracht, Anne Sheridan Smith.
Since Cuckoo’s Nest is set in a psychiatric hospital, we’ll indulge in some armchair psychiatry of our own: Ken Kesey must have had some serious mommy issues. Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Kesey’s novel makes it hard to ignore that most of the patients in the ward attribute their residence in the loony bin to overbearing mothers or emasculating wives. Then, of course, there’s the mother of all ballbreakers, Nurse Ratched (Smith), who rules the ward with a steely smile and an iron fist. Granted, the book is 45 years old, so we suppose the misogyny is as much a product of its time as Ratched’s bizarre ideas about therapy. Her methods get shaken up with the entrance of Randle P. McMurphy (Pracht), the charming crook who feigns insanity to avoid the prison work farm. McMurphy’s rebel swagger and his ability to get under Ratched’s skin inspire his fellow patients to stand up for themselves.
It’s an adolescent fantasy, romanticizing mental illness and making a messiah of the anti-authority figure. But it’s also highly sympathetic and charming in the hands of the right cast (for this is a play that truly belongs to the actors), and Maher has assembled a crack ensemble. Both Pracht and Smith find shades of gray in roles that are written in black and white. The actors portraying McMurphy’s fellow patients manage to make real people out of what could easily become a parade of tics (though their antics can upstage the action). Particularly strong are Kevin M. Grubb as the law-abiding leader of the pack, and Anderson Lawfer as the stuttering virgin Billy. Maher and his cast find nuance in characters written only as types.—Kris Vire