“You’ve got to laugh, especially when things aren’t funny — it keeps you in balance,” says Randle Patrick McMurphy in Central Alberta Theatre’s powerful, shocking and humorous presentation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
McMurphy is a larger-than-life rabble-rouser, played by Mike Mohr in the gripping production that opened Thursday at City Centre Stage in Red Deer. He leads browbeaten psychiatric patients towards personal freedom by bucking the institutional system and its repressive ward policies.
McMurphy and his fellow inmates gamble, party and play basketball with a human net . . . all under the nose of rigid disciplinarian Nurse Ratched, who takes this insubordination very personally.
It’s amazing how funny this 50-year-old story based on Ken Kesey’s novel continues to be — as well as how heartbreaking.
Besides the way mental patients are treated in this period piece, set in the late 1960s, other backwards attitudes surface — most notably, in representations of aboriginal culture and women. (What would Freud say about Kesey’s relationship with his mother, considering every single female in the story is either an emasculating witch or bimbo?)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is definitely a product of its time. But the compelling plot remains relevant because of its hopeful, life-affirming themes about seizing the moment and not allowing the establishment to stomp you down.
The script, adapted by Dale Wasserman, is insightful, and — in this case — very well performed.
Fourteen energetic local actors, ranging from novices to veterans, create impressive dimensional characters who are funny or tragic. Sometimes both.
Director Jeremy Robinson also does a stand-up job of pacing the production, and setting the right tone for dialogue originally written in 1959. There’s a realistic vibe to the scenes, but each character’s intensity is cranked up an extra 20 per cent — or in the case of McMurphy, maybe even 30 per cent.
There isn’t a boring moment. Mohr comes on like gangbusters in an effusive performance reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s in the 1975 movie version. That’s not unexpected, since the role is written for over-the-top delivery. Mohr still manages to find some subtleties in Kesey’s gregarious anti-hero who pleads insanity to get out of doing jail time.
For instance, McMurphy has to look inward when Nurse Ratched questions his motives for empowering other inmates.
Lisa Robinson plays a chilling Ratched — all the more terrifying because she seldom raises her matter-of-fact voice or lets her reserve slip. There are hidden daggers behind that smiling face, but Ratched only abandons her Stepford wife persona when the inmates directly challenge her over TV privileges. She reacts by doing something that’s petty, spiteful — and very revealing.
The inmates are an appropriately motley crew: Keith Ainscough plays evasive patient spokesman Dale Harding, Ian Sheppard is the timid stutterer Billy Bibbit, Jay Chahley portrays chuckling Cheswick, Michael Sutherland depicts deluded Scanlon, and David Huedepohl is the wasted Ruckley.
All five characters come across as memorable and believably idiosyncratic.
Jason Steele, who is not aboriginal, has the tricky job of playing half-native Chief Bromden, who’s the heart of the play. But Steele manages to largely side-step the stereotype of the noble native and instead gives Bromden a quiet humanity.
Steve Suk and Daniel Vasquez play thuggish aides. Ashley Mercia and Craig Scott portray a cowed nurse and a busy doctor who can’t be bothered to challenge Ratched’s authority. And Tara Rorke and Sarah Gibson depict the hookers that McMurphy sneaks in to his party.
There’s plenty of foreshadowing to prepare audience members for the play’s devastating conclusion. But it still manages to unsettle and sadden.
At the same time, the play fosters an appreciation for everything that makes us individuals. And that’s worth celebrating.
Seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a funny/sad, thought-provoking and worthwhile way to spend an evening. It runs to April 12.