The Keegan Theatre reprises their successful 2008 Ireland Tour Production of One Flew the Cuckoo's
Nest at the Church Street Theater until August 15. A renegade leader and a band of brothers coming together to
overthrow the oppressor must have resonated in the Emerald Isle. Under the deft direction of Susan Marie Rhea this Rabelaisian
saga is marshaled into a concentrated battle of power played out episodically by the two principals Nurse Ratched (Sheri Herren)
and Randle Patrick McMurphy (Mark Rhea) within the microcosmic world of a mental hospital.
Dale Wasserman's stage adaptation in its entirety is one of the best examples around of how to transform a novel into
a play. The poetry and dramatic tension of Ken Kesey's 1962 satire, effectively converted into a 3-act tragicomedy,
features Chief Bromden (Kevin Adams) as the central narrative voice. I've dealt with the cultural context of the
novel and the force field the film version has exerted on the play in the recent Round House revival ( see One Flew ...). The Keegan delivers a similar abbreviated version (though with more dialogue removed) due to production
constraints - a cast of 16 is paired down from the original 23 - with some loss of humor and continuity provided by the secondary
On one level it's an American Tall Tale about a hard-drinking opportunistic outsider
who washes up in a psych ward, by way of a prison farm, and takes on a tyrannical head nurse who has systematically cowed
all and sundry, leading to the Final Showdown. The tale features malevolent aides, a Noble Savage, whores with hearts
of gold, and crazies of every stripe. On another level it concerns Man versus the Institution, pitting the individual
versus the government, society, and medicine and their surrogates using a barrage of psychoactive drugs, the standard electroconvulsive
(shock) therapy, and surgery (prefrontal lobotomy). On a basic level it's man against (wo)man, a bared-knuckles,
no-holds-barred battle of total freedom squared off against total control.
audience will take away the haunting visions of systematic emotional and physical torture. For the patients, before
Randall McMurphy arrives, merely showing or suggesting the instruments of torture is sufficient to elicit compliance.
When he enters the stakes are raised to the limits.
Sheri Herren as Nurse Ratched is truly diabolical in her
quest for total domination. In this play about power, emasculation, humiliation, shame and, let's face it, psychic murder,
Ms. Herren doesn't hesitate for a moment. Delivered with pitch-perfect cadence, the self control the actress manifests
through her character, with nary a wasted motion, is matched only by the control displayed over the rest of the cast and the
spell she casts on the audience - for me as close to the realization of the Big Nurse as I could have hoped for. There
may have been a way of improving it, but I frankly couldn't see how. She finds the sweet spot of this role and hammers
Mark Rhea as Randall McMurphy gives a spirited performance, looking like he's off the set of The
Wild One with leather jacket, cap, sideburns and swagger. Mr. Rhea imbues McMurphy with a good natured vulnerability.
We see him grow as a character; starting out as a self-centered rogue, by the conclusion he's ready to accept the role
of a heretic, sacrificing himself for the good of his friends. Nurse Ratched has gained only a Pyrrhic victory - her
day is over - the memory of McMurphy lives on in those left behind.
Chief Bromden and Patient Harding embody
the alternate, if not stifled voices of spirit and reason. The Chief is played by Kevin Adams with a combination of
sensitivity and stature, opening up the humorous dimensions of the character played at times with a twinkle in his eye. Mr.
Adams captures the poetic and spiritual voice embodied in the story's throughline. Less successful, at least initially,
was the portrayal of Harding by Mike Kozemchak who was a little too diffident, for me, in a role calling for a razor-sharp
intellect undermined by an almost antic sexual ambivalence. The full comic potential in these and several other situations
was not realized in the first act, which drew few laughs and felt slow. Going forward, I'd tweak those scenes until
I got some immediate audience response.
The second act picked up the pace with the director building each of
the scenes to effective climaxes and introducing several nice touches in staging the "World Series," "Carnival,"
and "Wedding" episodes, along with returning the book and movie version ending to the play's finale which clarified
A fine supporting cast works hard to provide some comic relief. Joe Baker gives a nuanced
and believable characterization as stuttering Billy Bibbitt, while the behaviors of the paranoid Scanlon, delusional Martini,
and OCD-like Cheswick are captured by William Aiken, Rich Montgomery, and David Jourdan. Mr. Montgomery has a delightful
karaoke moment in the ward party. Colin Smith as the catatonic Ruckley provides some levity as a fixed but moveable
object while Melissa Hmelnicky jump starts each of her two scenes.
The design elements of the production
were first rate, delivering a lot of bang for the buck. The stark geometric set of George Lucas was effectively lighted
by Dan Martin to emphasize a rose-lavender and bright green-blue color palette reminiscent of 50s and 60s pastels as well
as Native American Beads. Sound and original music by Tony Angelini and Matthew Rippetoe, respectively, created an ominous
mood at times while shifting to an upbeat and new age tempo at the transitions. The costumes of Shadia Hafiz nicely
contrasted medical/patient/outside worlds without calling undue attention; and Carol Baker effectively matched just the right
amount and type of props to space.
I thought the non-traditional casting with white aides took some
of the bite and clarity out of the play - how Nurse Ratched manipulated the blacks to implement her will and nurture and transform
their hatred is lost in the process - and it is not always clear what these guys are about.
however, many more pluses than minuses in this complex, full-scale literary adaption. The DC area was fortunate indeed to
have two high quality productions of Cuckoo's Nest in one season. If you missed the Round House's version
earlier don't let this one get away. Even if you have, you'll want to see what Nurse Ratched is all about. You're
not likely to forget her!
Additional cast includes: Eric Humphries, Patrick Mitchell, Megan Thrift, K.J. Thorarinsson,
Daniel Steinberg, and Jane Petkofsky.
Sound check: Moderate to loud sound levels during emotional
Program notes: Fair, Company Dramaturg should be utilized and/or Director's Notes provided
meter: Recommended, 3+ hands
Runtime: 2 hours and 10 minutes with an intermission
Photo credits: Cristiano Rubio
Copyright by John F. Glass July 28, 2009
All rights reserved