BWW Review: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at Florence Community Theater is Crazy Good!
"One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo's nest." So goes this childhood folk rhyme that metaphorically describes life in a psychiatric hospital described in Ken Kesey's 1962 novel.
I remember being emotionally wrecked by seeing the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, on television years ago. Impressions were burned into my brain as if by electric shock. I've never forgotten the feisty shenanigans of Jack Nicholson as Johnny sparked life into a despondent group of patients. Or his uncanny caring relationship with those patients or his intuitive connection to the silent Native American man called Chief. Or his relentless optimism in that dark, dreary place. The Florentine Players snapped me back to that time and reinvigorated my anguish and pleasure by their superb performances.
Neal Herring is as fine a director as he is an actor. He, with Assistant Director Wendy Salinas, guides his talented cast through this moving story. This requires a subtle touch to prevent the preposterous while presenting the humorous. Heavy handed acting could ruin this piece by making it a joke. They don't do that here. They interpret their characters with just the right touch. When I see John "JJ" Davis portraying Martini, his hand twisting and foolish faces and the weird ways in which he wears his clothing make his character both childlike and convincing for me. He really could be insane. The same is true of Tom Steffes as the bomb building Scanlon. His facials show fear and paranoia. His hands have a death grip on the box containing his "bomb." Tim Mantil as young Bill Bibbit is endearing as the stuttering boy who could never live up to his mother's expectations. I long to protect him from the world as he plucks at his wrist bandages and struggles to verbalize his insecurities.
Non-speaking characters, Ric Gustafson (Ruckley), Patrick Brusnahan (Chronic Patient), Jim Adams (Chronic Patient) and Joshua Brunken (Chronic Patient) act almost as human props. Gustafson stands crucified with wet sweat pants or acts as a basketball hoop. He becomes utilitarian rather than human, yet there is a connection to the others by his willingness to be useful. Brunken, Adams, and Brusnahan are as real as any we would see in a psychiatric ward who have been subjected to one too many treatments. They speak volumes without opening their mouths, proving the aphorism, "There are no small parts."
Between these extremes are the patients with the most 'normalcy.' Stan Tracey (Cheswick) spits out humorous comments with a bite. Jim Watson (Harding), has unspoken intimacy issues with his well-endowed wife and describes himself as a rabbit unable to challenge the wolf that is Nurse Ratched.
Brian Henning (Chief Bromden) is a silent force. Acting as narrator, he talks to Papa while spotlighted in white. He is big, but wants to be bigger. He is silent, but solely because he chooses to be unrecognizable. Only McMurphy sees him and breaks through the surface. Henning and Tracey are adept at both playing the stoic and displaying intense grief.
The heart of the story revolves around the turbulent relationship between Shelly Gushard (Nurse Ratched) and McMurphy (David Frolio). Conflict mounts steadily until it culminates in a nerve shattering scene of violence. McMurphy bets his ward mates $10 that he can get "a burr up her butt" within a week. In describing Nurse Ratched the Florentine Players puts it well, "a drill sergeant, caring mother, and Josef Mengele wrapped up in one prim, proper, smiling package...and a new arrival to the ward threatens her world and her rule like nothing else before." That new arrival, Frolio, enters and immediately takes charge. He exudes passion and dominates the stage. He is funny. He is fiery. He is furious. Frolio makes us feel each of these things. Conversely, Gushard gives off a chill. A forboding. And she gives us the desire to take revenge on her excessive and misguided management style.
The only one to question Nurse Ratched is Dr. Spivey. Ben Webb's calm, almost passive, response to her feels right. He appears weak willed, but he isn't afraid to reject Nurse Ratched's recommendations and side with McMurphy. However, even though he grows in confidence of his authority, he is unable to stop her madness.
George Weaver (Turkle), Hope Voto (Nurse Flinn), Donovan Fortina (Williams), and Zdenek "Z" Voprada (Warren) add texture as ward staff. Weaver shows his willingness to flaunt the rules and enjoy a drink from his silver flask, eliciting laughs for his behavior and singing "Come Living Water" in a pleasing voice. Fortina and Voprada alternate between mercilessly taunting Chief and suffering Nurse Ratched's abuse themselves. Voto, as the only other nurse on duty, keeps a low profile, hiding behind her crucifix and Catholic faith.
Playing ladies of questionable reputation crucial to the climax of the story, Candy (Cecelia Sass) and her friend Sandy (Tonnie Zezulak) arrive with their particular offerings, triggering an outcome that no one anticipates.
In addition to all of these impressive performances, the music chosen suited the action perfectly. "Say Something" is sad enough on its own, and when playing in the background of an emotional scene, it is hard not to reach for the box of tissues. Billy Joel's "You May Be Right (I may be crazy)" and Patsy Cline's phenomenal hit "Crazy" are two more brilliant additions to an already incredibly moving production. Sounds of geese flying overhead point back to that childhood rhyme with "goose swoops down and plucks you out," becoming a metaphor for freedom.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST was adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman. It won a Tony Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and Drama League Award for Best Revival of a Play in 2001. It was released as a film version in 1975 with iconic Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. The movie won five Academy Awards, six Golden Globes, and six BAFTA Awards.
This award winner is so good that you need a dynamite cast to do it justice. I believe that the Florentine Players did just that and more. It is honest and raw. I laughed. I cried. And I meant it sincerely when I stood to applaud. Bravo!
Performance dates: FEB 20, 21, 22 at 7:00 pm and FEB 23 at 2:00 pm.
Photos courtesy of The Florentine Players