The human spirit is a loosely defined concept. Governed by intellect, emotions (good and bad) and passion, the philosophical idea catalyzes any and all actions of humans. Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckooo’s Nest,” delves into what happens when this spirit is broken. Next Thursday the story will come alive—complete with the infamous Nurse Ratched—in Wilmington thanks to Big Dawg Productions.
Venturing back to the ‘60s, a time of radical change in many of society’s sectors, a monumental shift in attitudes toward mental health took place. The decade began the deinstitutionalization process, wherein priorities of mental-health facilities strayed from a holding-cell mentality to rehabilitation. Stays in psychiatric hospitals were shortened and the movement dethroned the notion that people in mental wards should become dependent upon them.
Written in 1959—though not published until 1962—“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” gives a glimpse into the psychiatric field prior to the deinstitutionalization movement. Spurred by his time as an orderly, Kesey uses the novel as a vehicle to explore the oppression patients experienced. The controversial novel, which met flack due to its graphic nature, was turned into a Broadway play in 1963, and subsequently, a film—starring Jack Nicholson—in 1975.
Wilmington’s own J.R. Rodriguez is slated to direct the Big Dawg’s iteration of the iconic tale. “What I see in the show is the theme of the human spirit and how we either lose it or it is taken away from us,” Rodriguez muses. “It’s taken away from everyone in the piece one way or another. And we see how some combat that and wonder if it’s a winning cause.”
Narrated by Chief, a half-Native American perceived to be mute and deaf, “One Flew Over the Cuckooo’s Nest” chronicles the power struggles between the antagonizing patient Randle Patrick McMurphy (Hal Cosac) and tyrannical head nurse Mildred Ratched (Deb Bowen). Through the mélange of characters, audiences will see the strife a mental patient during the time would have experienced, as the play spirals toward a powerful conclusion. As well, the conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy encapsulates the raging battle between authority and the oppressed that gained steam in the ‘60s and still carries forward today.
With a novel, a play and a film—especially one with such esteem—leading the charge as a template, Rodriguez maintains he will honor its previous incarnations. “I don’t think you can really toy with a show like this,” he tells. “I think the writing itself is a masterpiece. [As a director, I must] play it straight, cast it well and make sure to have a group that understands the language.”
Taking on the role of Chief will be local thespian Charles Auten. The seasoned actor revels in sinking his teeth into a character in such stark contrast to himself. Auten informs that his own gregarious, outspoken nature has been a challenge to subdue when portraying a character so disillusioned with the world that he’s almost completely shut down.
“The pain and fear that consumes him is relatable to anyone, as I think most of the characters within the production are,” Auten tells. “In each patient’s insecurities, we see glimpses of our own fears.”
The relationship between Chief and McMurphy fuels much of the production’s action. The unlikely duo comprise one character who can’t be stifled and another that struggles to find his voice. McMurphy manages to get Chief to open up, a feat the ward’s practitioners have never managed to do. Their bond constitutes a large part of what attracted Auten to the show; their affinity allows divergent roles to become larger than just the individual character’s storylines.
“I relate to the McMurphy’s sense of humanity and the pleasures he seeks out in life,” Cosac says. “We all want to have a good time, but we also need to matter at the end of the day. He walks (or rushes) into a place full of people [who are] missing something in their lives. He rubs pieces off himself onto them to complete their puzzle. He is a meteor that comes crashing down, and although there’s a giant explosion and destruction, it allows for new life to be born.”
Throughout the course of the show, characters grapple with atrocities like electroshock therapy, suicide and an impending lobotomy. It creates an ensemble dependent upon the give-and-take between characters to propel the story. It lends its hand to formulating a larger discussion on the human spirit.
“The opportunity to be a part of what is an amazing ensemble of actors is really what this show means,” Auten comments. “[It leads me] to work, to learn, to grow, and to hopefully do justice to this touching story. Ultimately, my goal is to deliver an honest performance that helps show the humanity of not only Chief, but of those who teach, inspire, and—spoiler alert—give him the courage to face the world along the way.”
Set in an Oregon mental ward, Aaron Willings has designed the set for the intimate Cape Fear Playhouse. Rodriguez notes that a few surprises will meet viewers in an effort for them to feel more immersed in the action of “One Flew Over the Cuckooo’s Nest.”
The play opens next week on Thursday, May 7, and folks will be able to catch it each Thursday through Sunday until May 17.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Thurs.-Sun., May 7-10, 14-17, 21-24, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.