BWW Review: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at Playhouse On Park
It's a funny thing when a piece transcends its given medium and becomes ingrained in pop culture. People who have never seen a certain play/read the book/watched the movie find themselves familiar enough with the plot or the characters without ever really experiencing the piece in its entirety. For me, this has been the case for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST a story that was first told via the acclaimed novel by Ken Kesey, then the adaptation for the stage by Dale Wasserman, then the Academy Award winning film by Milos Forman. I had some familiarity with the plot and characters, but somehow, I was never exposed to it completely, and so it was with a fairly blank slate (those pop culture staples notwithstanding) that I approached Playhouse on Park's latest production.
For anyone else in the dark, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST tells the story of a motley bunch of patients who reside in a State Mental Hospital somewhere in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1960's. The entire play is set in the day room, the place where the patients spend their time playing cards, watching TV, attending group therapy meetings, receiving their medication, or just staring out the barred windows. The group seems, for the most part, to be a well-established community, albeit one where each member has a unique mental affliction. We meet Chief Bromden (Santos) the deaf and mute Native American who provides some narration via his thoughts, and who is the longest standing patient in the ward. There is also Dale Harding (Adam Kee), the intelligent, de-facto leader of the group, Billy Bibbitt (Alex Rafala) the young man with a severe speech impediment and fear issues, loudmouthed and opinionated Charles Cheswick (Rick Malone), Frank Scanlon (John Ramaine) who is obsessed with explosives, Anthony Martini (Harrison Greene), who has severe hallucinations and Ruckley (Ben McLaughlin), a chronic patient in a mostly vegetative state who spends his days pretending to be crucified on the wall. Everything changes, though, with the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger), a con-man who pretends to have mental issues so he can be transferred to the hospital from a prison work farm and serve his sentence more comfortably. He soon meets Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell), the head nurse of the institution who rules the ward with an iron fist, using threats and punishments to keep the patients in line. McMurphy's arrival and his attitude towards the whole situation constantly pushes the Nurse's buttons and creates a battle of wills between the two, which is exacerbated by McMurphy's lack of response to her varied punishments (including electric shock). At the same time, McMurphy befriends the patients in the ward and takes it upon himself to help them free themselves from the oppressive rule of Nurse Ratched.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is astutely directed by Ezra Barnes, who also directed the CT Critics Circle award winning production of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK for Playhouse on Park last season. Mr. Barnes captures the fraternal and frenetic atmosphere of the ward, using the sparse quarters to bring together this odd group of men. He elicits nuanced performances out of each actor, allowing their afflictions to manifest in subtle ways vs. over the top portrayals, which emphasizes their human nature over their various conditions. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is a perfect play to mount at Playhouse on Park, since all the action takes place in the one room, allowing the audience to feel like we are right there along with McMurphy and his friends the entire play. There are solid performances from the entire cast, with a few key standouts. Worth noting is Alex Rafala's tortured Billy Bibbitt, who is the most believable of the bunch. His speech impediment and the way he manifests Billy's fears both physically and verbally is a thrill to watch. Adam Kee's performance as Dale Harding is also a standout, especially in his scenes with McMurphy. Speaking of R.P. McMurphy, Wayne Willinger's performance is solid, creating a believable con who seems to enjoy driving Nurse Ratched crazy and who starts to care for the others in the ward. But it is Patricia Randell's performance as Nurse Ratched that makes this production shine. She is subtle in her tyranny and is initially hard to read - is she truly evil? Does she care about the patients or just about making their lives miserable? The fact that the audience even asks these questions is what makes Ms. Randell's performance so brilliant. At times I found myself feeling sorry for her (she is just trying to do her job and take care of these men) and others when her eyes glint and a thinly veiled smirk appears on her face made me wonder, maybe she is as sadistic and evil as the patients seem to think. I will remember her performance for quite some time.
Supporting the performances are a solid creative team with costumes by Michele Sansone, a strong scenic design by David Lewis, lighting by Aaron Hochheiser that serves to punctuate some of the more intense scenes, and sound design by Lucas Clopton. Mr. Clopton also provides original music that creates an extremely effective underscore for the production.
Overall, Playhouse on Park's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is a moderately intense and thoughtful production that is equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking. The story unfolds in such a way where the audience is immediately enamored with this strange group and torn by the conflict thrust upon them with the arrival of McMurphy. It is funny at times, sad at others, and entertaining throughout. I am certainly glad that Playhouse on Park's version of CUCKOO'S NEST was my introduction to this classic story.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST runs at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, CT through November 18th. For more information, call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 or visit www.PlayhouseOnPark.org. Playhouse on Park is located at 244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT 06119
All Photos by Curt Henderson
Top Photo: Wayne Willinger as McMurphy, Harrison Greene as Martini, Rick Malone as Cheswick, Santos as Chief Bromden, John Ramaine as Scanlon, Adam Kee as Harding, Kataya Collazo as Nurse Flynn, Patricia Randell as Nurse Ratched
Mid-Photo 2: Santos as Chief Bromden
Bottom Photo: John Ramaine as Scanlon, Adam Kee as Harding, Athena Reddy as Candy Starr, Alex Rafala as Billy Bibbit, Wayne Willinger as McMurphy, Harrison Greene as Martini, Santos as Chief Bromden, Kataya Collazo as Sandy, Andrew Cooksey as Turkle