LAUREL – “This is all a combination between Franz Kafka and Mark Twain!” Thus exclaims mental-patient character Dale Harding in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Harding is describing the mental ward setting in which the play takes place. This description equally applies to the Laurel Mill Playhouse production of the work, which powerfully shows the absurd Kafkaesque power structure of the ward as well as the Mark Twain-like celebration of the individual spirit fighting against an unjust society.
The play’s text is Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel of the same name and is directed by Jen Sizer.
While the title comes from a children’s counting rhyme (One flew east, / One flew west, / One flew over the cuckoo’s nest), most of us are probably more familiar with the expression as the title of the 1975 film. This movie version won an Academy Award for Best Picture, no doubt due to Jack Nicholson’s charismatic (and Oscar-winning) portrayal of the lead character, Randle Patrick McMurphy.
Amazingly, the Laurel Mill Playhouse performance of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is so compelling that we can leave behind our memories of Nicholson and embrace actor Stephen M. Deininger in the role.
Deininger provides a loud, brash, fun-loving, magnetic, and compassionate performance as the ultimate rebel/free spirit/hero/anti-hero Randle Patrick McMurphy who, in the words of the play’s program notes, is “a charming rogue who contrives to serve a short sentence in an airy mental institution rather than in prison (but) learns that this was a mistake.”
This description may be incomplete, for McMurphy it is not necessarily making a mistake, but instead following a choice which allows him to discover his true calling as he rallies his timid fellow patients to take on “Big Nurse,” the notorious Miss Ratched, described (again in the program notes) with complete accuracy as “a fierce martinet.” Nurse Ratched is convincingly played with alternating coldness and seething rage by Jane Steffen.
Another stand-out actor is Adam Garrison, playing Chief Bromden, a Native American resident of the ward. Garrison masterfully handles his character’s transition from a mute background character to surprise leading role.
In the book, this is affected by his being the narrator, but carrying this off on stage requires formidable acting and direction skill to bring this to fruition.
The production accomplishes this very effectively through a combination of staging and narrative: “Big Chief,” as McMurphy calls him, speaks of his “illusory world” as a person with a mental health condition – an illusory world filled with apt metaphors of power and control in the real world around him as McMurphy says to a girlfriend: “There are a lot of crazier people on the outside” of the institution.
The Laurel Mill Playhouse staging is simple, as befits both the day room of a mental institution and also the relatively constrained space of the Playhouse.
The staging is complemented with musical accents which show that the setting is the 1960s; background music includes easy listening tunes such as Bert Kaempfert’s “Afrikaan Beat” and “A Singin’ Safari.” Similarly, there are references to the 1960s “Star Trek” (“Beam me up, Scotty!”) and nurses dressed in crisp white uniforms and caps of the era hand out the audience programs.
These nostalgic touches actually serve double duty: not only do they set the time period, but they also help lull the audience initially into the notion that the 1960s were somehow a purer and simpler time. This makes the ensuing drama all the more striking as events unfold on stage, with a free-spirited, anti-hero individualist sacrificing himself to inspire others to free themselves from pointless conformity to oppressive authority.
Indeed, it is here where this excellent production shines most brightly, providing us with the spirit of the sixties’ counter-culture: a call to declare independence from the corrupt and oppressive social system symbolized by Nurse Ratched and to reflect on how this message might be relevant to us, both individually and collectively, in the present day.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” runs through Sept. 30 at the Laurel Mill Playhouse. The language, content, and intensity of this excellent performance may be inappropriate for young children.