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Flying Into the Nest: Stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s work stands the test of time

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Randle P.  McMurphy has a singular hold on the public imagination. Few characters have inspired such a devoted following from actors and audiences across generations. The protagonist of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest” speaks to something deep in the American psyche that is hard to put a finger on. Still, it is infinitely alluring. Kirk Douglas and Gary Sinise have played McMurphy onstage in Dale Wasserman’s adaptation, and of course, Jack Nicholson immortalized him on film. In Big Dawg Productions’ current offering at the Cape Fear Playhouse, Hal Cosec takes on the challenge of this character and his legacy.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is the masterpiece of counter-culture icon Ken Kesey. It began as a novel in 1962 and was immediately optioned for a stage adaptation that premiered on Broadway the following year. Set at a state mental hospital in a ward run like a psychological prison camp by the truly sadistic Nurse Ratched (Deb Bowen), life has a predictable rhythm for the inmates until the arrival of Randle P. McMurphy. McMurphy is a complicated man: both decorated war hero with a dishonorable discharge, convicted felon who has gamed the system to get off the work farm and into a cushy stint at the psych ward for the rest of his sentence … or is he really insane? Though we might notever answer the question, we are certain he is all man—and completely human in ways that many of us (and the other characters) are not.

McMurphy’s great vitality sweeps into the frightened and reluctant lives of the ward’s patients: Billy Bibbit (Kenny Rosander), a terrified, stuttering young man with various Oedipal problems; Martini (Jim Bowling), hallucinator extraordinaire; Ruckley (Dave Bollinger), a lobotomy patient; Dale Harding (Anthony Lawson), former defacto leader of the ward; the deaf mute Chief Bromden (Charles Auten); Scanlon (Paul Pittenger), a would-be bomb maker; and Scanlon’s buddy, Cheswick (Charles Calhoun). The bulk of the story unfolds through the interactions of this core group and their tormentor, Nurse Ratched. She has a special kind of sadism, the kind that smiles at you and tells you she cares about you. She’s convincing as your only real friend, no matter how awful her actions are. Bowen can make audiences squirm in her seat she is so insidious. McMurphy can’t fathom that the group willingly subjects themselves to her. It’s the old question of, “How can they outnumber her and still submit to this treatment?” As their battle of wills ratchets up, Cosec’s charm stands out in stark contrast to his adversary, whose spine stiffens and mouth flattens out into a thin line of displeasure.

It’s an insane asylum, so in theory anything and everything goes. Each of the characters also represent different aspects of the human psyche, both functioning and dysfunctioning. Charles Auten’s rendition of Chief Bromden is straight out of Stephen King and flat-out gave me nightmares. Bromden narrated the book, and for the play he still provides guidance between the scenes.  Blessed with  a big personality and a fearless nature, Auten can play comedy on a grand scale, and he can command the focus and power of a scene with no trouble. But to be the shy, retiring guy who believes himself to be too weak to do anything? That’s a stretch—and Auten brings the audience along on a ride that is bizarre, frightening and, by the end, completely organic.

Jim Bowling’s Martini is fabulously uncontrolled and over the top. He enacts each scene with an almost cartoon level of animation to his facial features and constant nonverbal efforts with other patients and the audience.

One of the key aspects to the novel and the film was that the hospital orderlies were African American, which explored the parallels of social shunning both inside and outside of the institution. Remember: This was the ‘50s and ‘60s, when struggles of race permeated all aspects of existence. It is certainly not to say it doesn’t exist today, but in a different way. The director, JR Rodriguez, has made these two characters symbols of something else, by removing the dynamic of race and class. With this production the roles of the orderlies (Casey Mills, Jake Huber and Craig Myers) become much more about what humans will do in groups and where lines of personal responsibility are drawn. When we first see Mills and Huber, they’re pretty callous and show off their petty positions of power by small and large acts of torment against the inmates. But as McMurphy chips away at the façade of Nurse Ratched and her dominion, the subtle but genuine shifts of comprehension and remorse appear. They have become our own journey through elementary school as we learned the tenants of character: It’s not what you do when someone is watching that matters, but what you do when no one is watching. 

Dr. Spivey (Bradley Coxe) does a marvelous job of hiding his nose in his notes and not seeing what he doesn’t want to see. He is visibly cowed by Ratched, and on the few occasions he overrides her, it takes a visible toll upon him. Anna Gamel as Candy Starr, McMurphy’s hooker girlfriend, turns in a performance as possibly the classiest hooker to appear onstage in awhile. The bubbling ray of sunshine she brings with her, even on the darkest night, reminds us (along with the other New Testament imagery) that the Magdalene was a fallen woman. The earthly joys she brings with her are all the more therapeutic because of the kindness and happiness with which she infuses everything. Many scholars have argued about the rebel Christ-like nature of McMurphy and his journey for the inhabitants of the ward. Combined with Cosec’s radiant blonde hair and wining smile, one could argue that Rodriguez hit upon a beautiful rebel with this casting choice.

Aaron Willings’ set comes complete with awful linoleum tile, a nurse’s station and locked windows that become more creepy by the slightly nauseating green lights with which Dallas Lafon bathes the stage. The subtlety of it all would make any free person recoil in fear of being admitted.

“Cuckoo’s Nest” remains an important moment of reflection on American society: literally holding up a mirror to us as individuals and as members of a group. Right now we are confronted with some truly painful questions about where the lines of personal and group responsibility are drawn. Though set in the 1950s and written more than half a century ago, the questions McMurphy and Kesey are asking are just as pressing today.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Thurs.-Sun., May 14-17, 21-24, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.
Tickets: $16-$22

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