Review: Church Hill's 'Cuckoo's Nest' is a Celebration of Defiance

Written by:PETER HECK     Written on:September 15, 2016
pheck@thekentcountynews.com

CHESTERTOWN Are you ready for a theater experience that --- in the words of director Michael Whitehill --- is "a bit different?" Then you definitely ought to see "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," directed by Whitehill, at Church Hill Theatre.

Based on the novel by Ken Kesey, as scripted by Dale Wasserman, "Cuckoo's Nest" is the story of a group of mental patients and those charged with their care, sometime in the 1960s. The novel, written by Kesey in 1962, is a sort of bridge between the Beat Generation and the Hippies an outraged cry against the repression of the 1950s' conformist culture.

The play made its Broadway debut in the fall of 1963, produced by Kirk Douglas, who also took the role of the rebel McMurphy. The original cast featured Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit and Ed Ames as Chief Bromden. In a 1971 off-Broadway revival, Danny De Vito took the role of McMurphy.

The 1975 film, which went back to the novel for its script rather than adapting the play, starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. The play and film differ in that several episodes from the novel, especially a fishing expedition outside the hospital, are absent from the play. Also, Bromden, who narrates the novel and play, takes a less central role in the movie.

The play begins with a scene establishing several of the characters, until a new patient arrives: Randle Patrick McMurphy, who has faked insanity so he can be sent to the hospital instead of prison. From the start, McMurphy sets out to challenge the system, especially head nurse Mildred Ratched, who runs her ward with an iron hand.

The escalating battle between McMurphy and "Big Nurse" Ratched becomes the dominant theme of the play building to a disturbing climax that nonetheless bears a gleam of hope. Director Whitehill, in his program notes, addresses the play's theme of the power struggle between the forces of control and those who accept "the differences and genius" the authorities would eliminate.

Patrick Fee plays Chief Bromden, an Indian from one of the northwest tribes whose ancestral lands were drowned by the Grand Coulee Dam. The character is diagnosed as a catatonic who is unable to hear or speak, and therefore takes no part in group therapy sessions. Fee stalks about the stage silently, with a glowering face, making the character an ominous presence in almost every scene. A strong performance in a key role.

Howard Messick is perfectly cast as McMuphy, the high-spirited rebel. In previous roles Messick has shown himself to be adept at over-the-top comedy, and that spirit transfers well to tl1is characterization. He makes it easy to see how this charming con man comes to dominate the other patients and disrupt the power of the system. This may be Messick's best performance to date.

Felicia Tuttle takes the role of Nurse Ratched, a character she describes in the program book as one of her dream roles. She plays Ratched not as a fierce tyrant but as a quiet authority figure --- her power implicit in the ability to order shock treatment and to issue punishments. Only as McMurphy's influence begins to assert itself does her external coolness and precise command of detail begin to crack.

Given its subject matter, the play unsurprisingly offers a rich variety of colorful secondary roles, and several CHT veterans get to show off tl1eir chops. Wade Garrett, who has played several memorable roles in the past, is convincing as Martini, a patient given to vivid hallucinations. Liz Clarke and Emily Chiras are thoroughly amusing as a pair of prostitutes that McMurphy smuggles into the hospital for a party. And Ray Randall, previously seen as the chauffeur in "Driving Miss Daisy," is nicely cast as an aide McMurphy bribes to let the party go on.

The cast also includes several relative newcomers in key roles. Talley Wilford gets an important role as Billy, the timid young patient whose fear of the outside world has led him to seek refuge in the asylum. John Perkinson does a good job as Harding, the unofficial leader of the inmates before McMurphy's arrival. Richard Smith is convincing as the mild-mannered doctor nominally in charge of the ward, but easily manipulated by both Ratched and McMurphy.

Almost as important as any of the characters is Whitehill's chilling set. Directly before the audience is a wire grill stretching completely across the front of the stage. Behind the grill is a stark common room, with folding chairs and tables and an intimidating booth housing the nursing station.

Whitehill said the idea for the grill carne to him "about three o'clock one morning." It is a powerful visual metaphor separating the audience from the "inmates." It also serves as a literal fourth wall, and allows some physical activity on the stage that would otherwise be all but impossible, such as an inmates' basketball game. At several points, the actors quietly interact with the "cage" that defines their space.

"Cuckoo's Nest" presents adult themes and raw language that may make it inappropriate for younger theatergoers. Uke the novel it is based on, it is a deliberate provocation of order and decorum, elevating a petty criminal as its hero and inviting the audience to celebrate his defiance. Kesey's tale can be seen as one of the seeds from which the counterculture of the '60s grew, and this production effectively captures that spirit of questioning authority in all its manifestations.

In the opening night performance, a couple of Fee's "inner dialogue" speeches were hard to hear because of the sound effects accompanying them. later in the performance, the balance was better. "Cuckoo's Nest” runs through Sept 25. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students.

Call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit www.churchhilltheatre.org to make reservations.