BWW Review: Vivid, stylish ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at Spectrum Theatre Ensemble
When Ken Kesey dropped acid while working as a night orderly in a mental health facility back in 1960, he had a revelation. Seeing the hospital and its patients with expanded perceptions convinced him that it was the institution, not them, that was "insane," and this insight animates his novel, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest." The Spectrum Theatre Ensemble has mounted a vivid, stylish production of Dale Wasserman's play that captures this spirit in a powerful evening of theater.
The plot is likely familiar from the novel and 1975 film: Set in the dayroom of an institution, a group of long-time residents are ground under the thumb of authoritarian orderlies and nurses until the arrival of a new patient, Randle Patrick McMurphy, a malingering conman avoiding jail, throws the system into chaos.
The story centers the experience of Chief Bromden (Jay Walker), a Native American who appears to be unable to speak or hear, but who relates his backstory in a series of conversations with an imagined father. Walker does an outstanding job at switching between his slow, dull presentation on the ward and allowing us into his reveries.
Director Clay B. Martin has coached outstanding performances all around, and has placed and paced the action with thought and precision. It is one of the highest compliments to the casting and direction that, before even being named, those familiar with the story will know exactly who the actors are playing when they enter.
Daniel Boyle inhabits the role of Dale Harding with assurance and empathy. Geoffrey Besser's Billy Bibbitt is deft, deep study of a tortured, fractured personality. Cheswick (David Adams Murphy) and Martini (Daniel Perkins) are rich and well-crafted, as is the difficult, near wordless role of the lobotomized Ruckly (Adam Almeida). Adam D. Bram does a delightful, grinning turn as the bomb enthusiast Scanlon. The supporting cast of hospital staff and visitors are equally skilled, with strong performances all around.
Madison Weinhoffer is icy perfection as the antagonist, Nurse Ratched; utterly controlled, with silky menace as she threatens Bibbit, looming over Dr. Spivey, hitting just the right notes of sublimated rage as she confronts McMurphy. Teddy Lytle plays McMurphy big and loud -- perhaps missing an opportunity for a bit more headroom to build in key moments -- and with an unflagging energy and enthusiasm that makes his reversals in Act II all the more powerful. His scene with Bromden where he punches through the Chief's shell and convinces him he could be "big" is a standout moment.
This is an intensely stylish production. Max Ponticelli's rusted gray set adorned with gears, both metal and stenciled, with its towering central nurses station is authentically chilling and bureaucratic. The costumes (Kat Fortner) and props (Justin Stanley) draw heavily on a steampunk esthetic, with Nurse Ratched wearing a nurses cap adorned with antennae and a spooky facial appliance. Each of the patients wears an appliance thematizing their obsession (Scanlon's nest of finger-wires is a delight). These all perfectly enact the point-of-view of the narrating Chief Bromden, who imagines the machines of the numinous "Combine" everywhere.
Andy Russ's sound design is full of ambient menace, underscoring scenes with an institutional murmur and hiss. The pre-show music offers a sly wink, ending with Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" just before curtain.
The Spectrum Theatre Ensemble deserves kudos for this highly successful first full production. This new theatrical organization of neurodiverse artists has a mission to evolve "the awareness, resources, and professionals that empower our neurodiverse community in achieving equal opportunity and full participation in society." They have certainly achieved that goal here.
"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," by Dale Wasserman, directed by Clay B. Martin, at the Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Court, Providence, RI, 02909. Performances Thurs-Sat August 29-31, 7:30pm. Tickets $30, Seniors $25, Under-30 $20, Students $10 available at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1011456. The show features warnings for sensory-intense moments.
Photo: Spectrum Theatre Ensemble.