ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at Woodstock Opera House Marks Comeback for Actor Battling Mental Illness

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at Woodstock Opera House Marks Comeback for Actor Battling Mental Illness

When the stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest opens June 17 at the Woodstock Opera House in Woodstock, IL, it marks not only a staging of one of the true classics in American theatre but also the triumph of one man's personal battle with mental illness.

Based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest chronicles the journey of a ward of mental health patients at the mercy of a power hungry nurse who uses electroshock therapy, public shaming, and other aggressive treatments to try to bolster her power over them.

The Woodstock production stars actor Rikki Lee Travolta as R.P. McMurphy, a convict who the court transfers to a mental hospital to serve out the remainder of his sentence with a diagnosis of psychopath. The role was originated on Broadway by Kirk Douglas, and earned Jack Nicholson a Best Actor Oscar for the movie adaptation. A 2001 Broadway revival by Steppenwolf Theatre Company starred Gary Sinise. That production earned a Tony for Best Play Revival.

For Travolta, the role is a personal one and a victory in his own battle with mental illness.

In 1996 Travolta came to Chicago as the first celebrity guest star in the environmental theatre comedy Tony n' Tina's Wedding. Travolta's performance drew raves and set the way for other celebrity guest stars across the country.

He then appeared around the country in productions of West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, while moving his base of operations to Los Angeles.

By 2005, Travolta had been named alongside Donnie Osmond and Patrick Cassidy as one of the top three Josephs in the world for the musical Joseph...Dreamcoat. Travolta was on top of the world with his career options unlimited.

In 2008, however, Travolta suffered a psychotic break and was put in a mental hospital where he was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (what was once called Multiple Personality Disorder), Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and Paranoid Schizophrenia.

"In many ways my life was over," explains Travolta, whose very existence became a montage of appointments with mental health professionals as they tried various medication cocktails to stabilize the once popular actor. In addition to his doctors, Travolta gives credit to the mental health support organization Thresholds for helping him rebuild his life (

Despite the odds, Travolta wasn't willing to give up on the dream of one day returning to the stage.

"There are many successful actors who suffer from mental illness including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Linda Hamilton, Mel Gibson, Richard Dreyfuss, and Maurice Benard," cites Travolta. "Knowing that gave me the ambition that one day I too would be able to return to life as a working actor."

In 2013, Travolta published Unbecoming Travolta - a memoir about his personal battle with mental illness. The book has sold over 5,000 copies to date. Travolta had previously penned the novel My Fractured Life which was named an Top Ten Recommendation.

But a return to the stage still alluded him. That is, until Woodstock's TownSquare Players announced they would be staging One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 2016.

"I knew from the first day I heard they would be presenting the play that this was a role I had to play," states Travolta.

There was no star treatment for Travolta. He went through auditions just like every other actor, and in the end proved he was the best man for the job.

"Randall W. Knott is a very skilled director and the cast is amazing," says Travolta. "I'm honored to be working among them."

The play also stars Kate Curtin as Nurse Rached, Brendan Gaughan as Billy Bibbit, David Gasior as Chief Bromden, Mike Hillstrom as Dale Harding, Steve Sturm as Cheswick, Jim Pierce as Martini, and John Vukelich as Scanlon.

Travolta's performance is unlike any before his, as he is able to draw on his own experience with mental illness.

"With every production there is the question - is McMurphy crazy or just scamming the system to get out of prison?" explains Travolta. "The answer to that is up to the director and actors to convey to the audience."

Travolta is realistic about his return to the stage. "This isn't Broadway," he says. "But to get to Broadway films, or television you have to start the journey somewhere. This is my start."

Rest assured Chicago's top casting agents are being invited to the production. And, as far as venues go, the Woodstock Opera House has a proud history. The stage was a launching point for the careers of Orson Wells and Paul Newman.

Travolta isn't sitting at home waiting for fame to knock on his door either. His agent at Allensworth Entertainment in Beverly Hills is actively pitching a TV series conceived by Travolta. Champion of the People takes the premise of a former professional wrestler is elected mayor of a small town. It's Spin City meets WWE. An ensemble comedy, the series is set to star Dustin Diamond (Saved by the Bell) as the mayor's chief of staff and Tommy "Tiny" Lister (who headlined WWE storylines under the name Zeus opposite Hulk Hogan) as the wrestler turned mayor.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest staring Rikki Lee Travolta plays Fridays (8 pm), Saturdays (8 pm), and Sundays (3 pm) June 17-26 at the Woodstock Opera House (121 W. Van Buren Street, Woodstock, IL 60098). For tickets contact the Woodstock Opera House box office at (815) 338-5300

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