Saturday, April 21, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is perhaps best known for the 1975 film version that made Jack Nicholson a household name for his portrayal of the rebellious central character, Randle P. McMurphy; but within a year of the book's publication, Dale Wasserman had penned a stage version, the one now playing on the Wetumpka Depot's stage.

The action takes place on Kristy Meanor's impressively antiseptic set -- the day-room of a hospital psychiatric ward -- and is peopled by patients with either acute or chronic illness, all of them under the strict control of Nurse Ratched [Julie Janson] and her coterie of aides and junior nurses.

Director Cory Lawson's guides his effective ensemble of actors who are convincing in showing various aspects of mental illness: Martini [Bill Nowell] is subject to hallucinations; Cheswick [Frank Salvatore Monte] is much talk but little action; Ruckley [Brad Sinclair] imagines himself crucified to any wall available and speaks only with a repetitive vulgarity; Billy Bibbit [Marcus Clement] is a shy virgin who  is dominated by his mother and is afraid of the world outside the hospital; Scanlon [Blake Robertson] fantasizes on blowing things up; Dale Harding [Lee Bridges] is a repressed homosexual and leader of the patients' Council; together, they react and respond to McMurphy's rebellious attempts to help them regain a sense of self. -- The hospital's Dr. Spivey [Will Webster] and assorted nurses and aides all either succumb to Nurse Ratched's influence or behave with sadistic glee when they taunt the inmates. -- And the two whores McMurphy imports for a nighttime party booze-up -- Sandra [Samantha Inman] and particularly Candy Starr [Elizabeth Bowles] who is conscripted to have Billy lose his virginity -- bring evidence of an outside world as corrupt as the world of the hospital.

The story is narrated by Chief Bromden [Emile Mattison in an impressive stage debut], a Native American long-term patient whom everyone believes to be deaf and dumb, a ruse he uses to disguise his feeling of inadequacy; yet, this giant-of-a-man's journey to regaining a sense of himself as a person not defined by the emasculating calculations of Nurse Ratched, and his ability to tell us about his own hallucinations, the inhumane conditions at the hospital, and the impact of McMurphy on everyone's lives, is central to the issues of the drama.

McMurphy's entrance [we hear him before we see him] announces an immediate challenge to Nurse Ratched's rigid control. Scott Page commands attention from the outset; having conned his way into the hospital by feigning insanity, thinking a six month stay in the hospital would be easier than serving that time at a prison work farm [he fights a lot, and gambles, and brags about his sexual conquests], he stands against everything Nurse Ratched designs to emasculate and destroy the self-esteem of the patients under her control; and despite warnings from the inmates not to cross her, McMurphy bets them that he will be able to "get to her" and make her drop her cool and calculating demeanor and show anger. In a series of scenes where Mr. Page dominates the action by gambling at card games, narrating a World Series game on a blank television set, or disrupting Nurse Ratched's control over patients' meetings, the last straw is when he attacks her and accuses her of causing Billy's suicide.

Mr. Page's charisma as the swaggering non-conformist McMurphy who represents the self-determination, freedom, and sexuality that the other inmates lack, creates a perfect foil to Ms. Janson's sterile mechanical Nurse; she has an icy and insinuating demeanor that gives her an air of an angel of mercy, but her patronizing and manipulative facade, and the knowledge that she controls both the inhumane "treatments" [electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy] and the duration of all her patients' time in the hospital, eventually takes its toll: ironically, as McMurphy's influence helps others to find their own voices and get stronger and bigger, his actual and figurative stature gets weaker and smaller.

The only way McMurphy can remain a hero to the inmates after Nurse Ratched orders him to be lobotomized is for Chief Bromden to smother him and escape from the hospital, having regained his sense of self and his ability to tell the story.

Mr. Lawson's sensitive and impactful direction, combined with the clarity of storytelling and the riveting characterizations of his actors, make for a provocative and challenging theatrical event.