The Wagers of Freedom

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” currently playing at the Western Stage, in Salinas, begins in semi-darkness.  A man stands alone, his head bent.  He does not speak, but the audience hears his thoughts via recorded voiceover.  Against a relentless pulsing mechanical backdrop of sound, which he calls The Combine, the man named Chief laments over what has been ruined and taken away from his family’s tribal landscape.  He is grieving for what has passed, and afraid of what else those in control might do.

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Dale Wasserman’s theatrical adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel, is a story about freedom, power, and fear.  After being convicted of statuatory rape, R. P. McMurphy (Jeff McGrath) is admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, though we learn that he may be feigning mental illness in order to avoid spending time at a punitive work farm.  Conflict quickly grows between him and Nurse Ratched (Dawn Flood Fenton), a cold, regimented woman who employs humiliation and intimidation to keep a cowed band of male patients under her control.  McGrath, who is accustomed to dominating any environment he occupies, enjoys provoking her, and as his freewheeling, rebellious attitude begins to affect the other men, the tension soon escalates.

Although the 1975 film version of Kesey’s novel is especially memorable for the individually brilliant performances of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, the stage version, by setting the entire play (with the exception of one short scene) in the patients’ Dayroom, emphasizes the “society in miniature” represented by the different characters.  In the Western Stage’s fine production, directed by Mark Shilstone Laurent, the collective and focused energy of the ensemble conveys with humor and dramatic intensity the innate human desire to be free, and the cost of freedom in an environment of cruel coercion.

As McMurphy, McGrath is a vital presence on the stage, animating every scene he is in.  He receives strong support from the cast of actors playing patients, including Skot Davis as the brittle, tempermental Dale, Ron Cacas as the sweetly deluded Martini, and Nathan Liittschwager, who is excellent as the vulnerable Billy Bibbit, a young man who stutters and whose fearful relationship with his mother will have tragic consequences.

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is very much about a man’s freedom, a world in which women are either dominating mothers, sexual objects, or, in the case of Nurse Ratched, villainous creatures out to emasculate and thwart the desires of men.  As the principal antagonist in the play, Dawn Flood Fenton’s portrayal is convincingly stern and authoritarian, though without touching the true monstrosity of her character’s disturbed nature.

If Nurse Ratched is McMurphy’s enemy,  Chief Bromden (Reynald A. Medrano II), the man on stage at the opening of the play, is his most important potential ally, a man desperate for a strong male figure in his life.  He yearns to be inspired by McMurphy’s quest for freedom.  Medrano has a strong physical presence and his scenes with McGrath are engaging, but his voiceover narrations are spoken too quickly and feel more rote than dramatically rhythmic.

The cast is rounded out by the hospital staff and two flirtatious women who visit the men for a party McMurphy has organized.  Especially notable is Shaye Angelo Acevedo as a night aide who croons winningly as he works—his own small wager of personal freedom in an uptight, unfree world.

It can feel awkward to laugh at the sight of mental patients behaving as we imagine mental patients to behave, yet laugh we do.  Sometimes laughter comes as a relief.  Alex Bush, as Ruckley, nearly steals the show with his performance of a man who seems the most disturbed of all—he spends long stretches of time with his hands nailed, he thinks, to a metal-mesh door—yet when his arms are employed to form a human basketball hoop, he moves to catch the ball.  The patients tell him to keep still, but his gesture is a reminder that even when we’re at our most insane, we may yet look for ways to reach out and connect.

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,”  A Play in Two Acts by Dale Wasserman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey, at the Western Stage’s Studio Theater through June 24.