“This is a misogynist, prejudiced, error-ridden play,” proclaims Jeffrey B. Dubner ’03 in his director’s notes for the program of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Dubner’s statement emphasizes the controversial nature of a play that has deeply affected many with its tale of a renegade inmate battling the head nurse of a mental hospital.
The play, by Dale Wasserman, is based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, but it was the 1975 movie adaptation that gained the story immense fame while sweeping its way that year to the five most prestigious Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay).
The plot of this anti-government, anti-regulation story centers on the workings of a mental institution in which patients receive ineffective, oppressive and downright ridiculous treatment. The primitive practices of electric shock therapy and lobotomy that are represented in the plot would never be practiced in modern-day psychiatry, but the story still holds a relevant spot as a work that exposes an authority as flawed and in need of rebellion.
Kesey intends the injustice of the hospital’s bureaucracy to serve as a metaphor for the oppressive American sytem. Nurse Ratched, the head of the ward, is the epitome of strict, mindless ruling. She is challenged by the arrival of Randall Patrick McMurphy. McMurphy, who advocates revolution and butts heads with the authority of Nurse Ratched, points out the injustice of the institution. He leads the group of patients, which consists of varying temperaments and levels of sanity, to the realization that they do not have to stand for the ill treatment they receive. Chief Bromden, the half-Native American narrator of the play, does not speak or show signs of consciousness until McMurphy helps him realize that he can conquer the injustice surrounding him.
A talented group of actors propel this well-performed production. Sarah I. Meyers ’02 does a wonderful job of making the audience hate her Nurse Ratched. With every condescending raise of the eyebrow, the viewer feels more and more like attacking her, just as McMurphy does. Christopher R. Starr ’03 makes a believably arrogant and influential McMurphy. His performance is enhanced by the mischievously playful smirk that never leaves his face. As Chief Bromden, Yuming Zou ’02 fulfills the role’s stoic requirements. Robert A. Hodgson ’05 plays a wonderfully vulnerable Billy Bibbit: He stutters like a pro.
One scene which sticks out as a great example of the fluidity of the cast is the one in which all the patients, in an act of defiance against the control-freak Nurse Ratched, gather around an imaginary television set and shout out commentary on an imaginary World Series game. The scene is impressive enough to receive an ovation when the lights dim.
Though the set is sparse and the scenery simple, the play’s impact is in no way compromised. The only exit for escape, a barred and locked window, is sufficiently emphasized and the stark visual look even enhances the patients’ sense of helpless solitude.
Though most will walk into the theater familiar with the play or its film adaptation, the quality of the performers and direction for this production make for a worthwhile Cuckoo’s Nest. And if one is unacquainted with the material, the original novel was written by a man widely considered to be a leading instigator of the wacky counterculture of the 1960s. Misogyny, prejudice, crazy hippies, insanity—who could ask for anything more?