Beck refreshes mildewed melodrama ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’
By Bob Abelman
Dale Wasserman’s 1963 stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a celebration of a counterculture anarchy and rebelliousness that no longer exists in this country. Nor does much of the psychological symbolism that drives this drama.
But under William Roudebush’s astute direction and with an ensemble of superb performers, the Beck Center for the Arts’ production has mined and delivers all the many human moments this play has to offer.
Best known as a 1975 film directed by Miloš Forman, the story takes place in a mental institution where the charismatic, pathologically insubordinate Randle Patrick McMurphy (Bryant Carroll) gets transferred from a prison farm for evaluation. There he meets the imposing and uncompromising Nurse Ratched (Katherine DeBoer), who runs the psychiatric ward and keeps her patients under control through intimidation, medication and the threat of electroconvulsive therapy.
The play boils down to a battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched, with the ward’s featured patients (George Roth, Jeremy Gladen, Bevan Michael Haynes, Steve Oleksa, Tony Zanoni) and employees (Jarod Mariani, Minor Cline, Daniel Mckinnon, Leonard Goff) serving as their foot soldiers.
The battlefield is the authentic and oppressively antiseptic ward, coated in soul-sucking, mind-numbing shades of metallic grey and rendered with high ceilings, linoleum flooring, exposed air vents, and gated doors by scenic designer Aaron Benson. The jagged edges of the stage, where even Trad Burns’ institutional overhead lighting is hesitant to intrude, serve as a foreboding yet precarious barrier between inmate and audience.
Now 55 years old, the play’s portrayal of McMurphy as a martyred, messianic anti-hero, Nurse Ratched as a castrating mother figure, and giant Native American Chief Bromden (Maurice Cole) – a patient who has lost his sense of size and self, and serves as an allegory for our nation’s many indiscretions – are a tad tired and have lost much of their resonance.
So what matters most in this production, seen during its Thursday preview, are the performances. Each actor brings layers of emotional truth and all sorts of interesting physicality to their defining brand of mental and emotional illness.
As the lanky Billy Bibbit – with his low self-esteem, mother issues and resultant stutter – Gladen is wonderfully accessible and so very affecting. Both he and Roth as patient Dale Harding, who puts on display an absolutely intriguing assortment of spasmodic tics and disturbing tendencies while working hard at feigning normalcy, have marvelously written moments of mental melt-down that are delivered brilliantly.
As Nurse Ratched, DeBoer wears a frosty stare and condescending smile that doesn’t crack under duress or while emasculating a patient or staff member. Her presence is chilling, controlling and immediately impacts the atmosphere in the room upon entrance.
That is, until the introduction of Carroll’s happy-go-lucky rapscallion McMurphy. His contrasting heat, humor and energy cause minor shifts in the tectonic plates that support the ward that sends welcome ripples of theatricality through this production.
Lurking amidst the well-integrated ensemble loitering on stage as assorted acute and chronic patients is Ben Gregg as Ruckly, the victim of a botched lobotomy. Subtle and fully vested, Gregg adds ambient insanity and an additional layer of psychological pain to the proceedings without the aid of dialogue. His work is remarkable.
This production rarely loses momentum (the transitions between scenes are creatively orchestrated affairs), only occasionally engages in questionable choices (the jagged edges of the stage are breached, which compromises the illusion of confinement), and it never fails to engage our emotions.
Most importantly, the play’s most telling scenes – the first-act climax when McMurphy convinces his fellow inmates to engage in rebellion and the anarchic party in the second-act when girls (Dayni Mahar and Kara Kennelly) invade the premises – are honest, entertaining and completely void of mildew. CV
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
WHEN: Through Oct. 8
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 16, 2017.
Lead image: Maurice Cole (from left), Jeremy Gladen, Steve Oleksa, Tony Zanoni, George Roth, Bryant Carroll, Katherine DeBoer and Bevan Haynes. Photo / Kathy Sandham