Theater Review - Fully committed - One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Dad’s Cuckoo flies over heavy-handed aspects

When a work contains the word “cuckoo” in the title, you probably can’t expect a subtle or sympathetic portrait of the mental health profession. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became a popular and potent anti-establishment tale shortly after Ken Kesey published the novel in 1962, even though it equates psychiatry with the rest of the sinister modern forces that crush the spirit of the American male.

At a time of national paranoia, with phrases like “the military-industrial complex” back in common parlance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest retains its relevance, despite its creaky qualities. Dad’s Garage revisits the show for a new generation, and though Dale Wasserman’s script suffers from overwriting and heavy-handedness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can still give off sparks.

Director Kate Warner gives the play a terrific “environmental” gimmick. Dad’s Garage has whitewashed the theater’s modest Top Shelf space to superbly evoke the day room of a shabby, under-funded institution, with perfect details down to the scuffed checkerboard pattern on the floor. Audience members sit along the walls, so the “mental patients” at times lumber within arms reach.

Soul-crushing but upbeat Muzak tunes such as “Moon River” practically choke the atmosphere until McMurphy (Thomas Piper) barges in to stir things up. A boisterous convict who feigns madness to avoid laboring on a prison work farm, McMurphy immediately challenges all authority — particularly Nurse Ratched (Tiffany Morgan), who rules the ward with an iron fist.

Cuckoo’s supporting cast derives largely from the theater’s regular comedic players and improvisers, and on the show’s final preview performance, the young actors showed a tendency to overplay some of the “crazy” tics for laughs. Tim Stoltenberg movingly captures the despair of virginal Billy Bibbit, but his stutter sounds overly feigned. As the senior patient, Steven L. Emanuelson all but loses his character behind the deathly grins and rolling eyes.

Between scenes, the patients slip into dreamlike musical reveries, choreographed like childish playtime. Such moments boost the show’s humor and reinforce the idea that the hospital — like the larger American “system” — has infantilized this hapless group of nonconformists. But the interludes distract from the monologues of Chief Bromden (Mike Schatz), the near-catatonic Native American who perceives mind-controlling equipment in every shadow. Schatz fittingly infuses Chief Bromden with a stage presence comparable to a gravitational force, and his unlikely, inspirational friendship with McMurphy gives the play its heart.

Piper makes a live-wire, testosterone-fueled McMurphy and reminds me less of Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning 1975 take on the role than Josh Holloway’s swaggering Sawyer character on “Lost.” The script and the production each have their share of potholes, but Piper’s irrepressible physicality and carnival-barker delivery carry the show over the problems like a runaway train. However, it’s unfortunate that Wasserman’s adaptation plays up the Jesus parallels so much that the McMurphy character might as well be named McChristFigure.

With her icy, smiling delivery and palpable satisfaction in being cruel, Morgan’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched could be patterned after broadcast shrink Dr. Laura, but she lacks the self-assurance to make her seem a worthy opponent of Piper’s McMurphy. The character, who’s both a tough-love sadist and a nasty snob, invariably becomes a one-dimensional villain with no ambiguity or redeeming qualities. It would be refreshing to see a Nurse Ratched who sincerely believes she’s trying to cure her patients, instead of just reinforcing her own power.

Mental health treatment today, influenced by everything from Prozac to Oprah, seems overdue for a critique based on its touchy-feely, kill-them-with-kindness methods that could still keep Cuckoo’s emasculation themes intact. If a little out of date, Warner’s production crackles in the McMurphy vs. Ratched battle of wills over baseball, partying with floozies and electro-convulsive treatments. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remains a compelling show, and possibly even a therapeutic one.