What it comes down to with any living organism, really, is this: a fight to stay alive. There’s a reason military metaphors are used so often in conjunction with illness and disease. Antibiotics “combat” infections. Chemotherapy “battles” the bad cells. A valiant patient “fights” till the dying breath.
Perhaps one reason Dale Wasserman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the novel by Ken Kesey, retains its impact today — despite its 1960s vibe and feel — is that it so deftly captures this spirit of conflict. And it does so on several different levels. When I’ve seen other productions of the play, I focused mostly on its anti-establishment thrust, as so famously captured in the epic battle between the caustically evil Nurse Ratched, who rules over her ward at a mental institution with an iron hand, and the fight-the-power swagger of Randle P. McMurphy, the petty criminal with a temper who sees a stint in an asylum as a way to get out of hard labor. When Milos Foreman made the film version in the 1970s, he used it as a vivid commentary on the social unrest of the time.
At this new and overall nicely crafted Good Company Players production, which runs at the 2nd Space Theatre through Aug. 18, the rebel-in-society motif still comes through. But for me, an interesting — almost organic/biological — view comes into focus as well. Perhaps it’s because we live in an age in which a substantial chunk of the U.S. population downs anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs on a daily basis. Mental illness isn’t just something that happens to a select group of institutionalized unfortunates.The patients in “Cuckoo” aren’t so much zoo animals at which we gape (as we were more likely to do back in the 1960s) as regular folks unlucky enough to get sick. Yes, the treatment techniques depicted from the 1960s seem barbaric today — from indiscriminate electro-shock treatments to full-fledged frontal lobotomies. Weapons change. But the fight to survive continues.
When McMurphy (played by a stellar Joel M. Young) is admitted to the ward, it’s the equivalent of the veteran storytelling trope of the stranger who comes to town and thoroughly mixes up everyone’s lives. The battle lines are soon drawn between him and Ratched (played with a crisp, icy reserve by Valerie Munoz), who rules her roost through rigorous tough love. Dominating the motley group of patients on the ward is no challenge whatsoever for the smooth-talking McMurphy. He accomplishes that within minutes of his arrival. But Ratched represents a tougher target.
The shock of “Cuckoo,” however, is that the nurse is playing a much more dangerous game than the patient. One of the pivotal moments of the play comes when McMurphy realizes that there’s no definite term to his stay in the hospital. Up to that point he assumes he’s in there until his jail term is up. When he realizes he could be in there definitely, the swagger takes a big hit. Young — who is quite good at his character’s jolly, alpha-dog dominance in the first part of the show — handles this key moment especially well. We see the first jolt of fear, and it isn’t pretty.
As Ratched, Munoz makes a chilling adversary. Though her small stature doesn’t physically mesh with her character’s nickname of “Big Nurse,” she certainly makes an imposing presence. What I wished I could have seen more of from her, at the performance I saw, was more of a crack in her facade as her encounters with McMurphy grow more intense. For this relationship to really crackle, there has to be fear on both sides. Not much fear on Ratched’s part, perhaps, but it has to be there. Director Patrick Tromborg doesn’t deliver this, and the play seems a little empty and one-sided without it.
I also was a little disappointed with the famous “World Series rebellion” scene at the end of the first act. McMurphy’s big showdown with the nurse — she doesn’t want TV watching during the day — ends with an indelible image: the patients rooting in front of an “imaginary” game, with bedlam breaking out. Yet there’s no sense of building toward a peak of action in Tromborg’s direction here, no sense of swelling to a big, important moment.
Standouts in the cast include Gordon Moore as the tentative “leader” of the patients before McMurphy arrives, and Carlos Casillas as an imposing Chief Bromden, the Native American narrator whose monologues to his father explore the broader theme of the price of “progress.” David Pierce’s mild green and white institutional set nicely establishes the scene, while Max Krongaus’ lighting design could better help Tromborg find the narrative arc of the show.
I was particularly drawn to Gabriel Griffith’s performance as the stuttering Billy Bibbit. The physical choices he makes to capture his character’s tentative interaction with the world — tucking his leg beneath him in a chair, darting his eyes back and forth — are intriguing. And his outburst scene with McMurphy — when Billy declares he isn’t strong — is a rousing moment. Billy is a fighter. It’s a pleasure to root for him.