"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"

By Dale Wasserman
Based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by Timothy Kelley
Spiral Stage, Noble and Greenough School
Dedham, MA through July 31, 1999

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Spiral Stage has already established that it has an audience friendly facility and a competent technical staff. Presumably it produced "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" to validate its claim to "professional" status, proving that it can field a first rate team of local actors in a serious play. On those terms, the production ranks as a qualified success. Martin Bridge's acute ward set, with a futuristic glassed in control tower of a nurse's station looming over the junk shop furniture of the squalid patients' lounge, is functional and expressive. Ben Emerson supplies a sound design that carries the menace of machine to mind from an incessant background hum to a foregrounded threat. Director Tim Kelley's lighting underscores every change of mood. Susie Pancaldo's costumes fill in a myriad of detail without calling attention to themselves. The acting ranges from brilliant to competent, with no embarrassing lapses into amateurism. Kelly keeps his cast on a tight rein, though. Nobody gets away with spontaneous touches that don't fit the Morality Play schematic.

 The hero, Randle P. McMurphy, is a child of Nature, a roaring boy whose innocent drunken pleasures have resulted in a few run-ins with the nit pickers of the Law. Disinclined to spend more time in jail, when he is once again arrested McMurphy exaggerates his native wildness in a way intended to convince the judge that he is a certifiable psycho, a committable nutcase. His object is to be sent to a cushy mental hospital rather than doing hard time. McMurphy gets his wish: the irony is that he is so innocent that he doesn't realize that a mental hospital may be the hardest time of all. There, instead of recognizing that they are all prisoners together and exploiting the cracks in the rules to gain a little dignity and a few pleasures, the patients join the system that abuses them, snitching and pecking and groveling in abject self-immiseration.

Billy Meleady is a full out but beautifully shaded and very Irish McMurphy --- a big performance from a compact Force of Nature. I heard some complaint in the lobby from folks who had trouble understanding Meleady's rapid brogue, but every word was as clear to me as every emotion surely was to all of us. Courage and cleverness and charm: how can such a lad lose? Or aren't such losers really winners, immortally the stuff of song and legend?

Sheila Stasack is Nurse Ratched, the omnipotent Big Sister behind the control panel, and McMurphy's antagonist. Her smile-- a genuine smile, not a smirk-- radiates certainty that time is on her side and the odds all in her favor. Some of the patients are eager to desert Big Nurse's gang and join McMurphy's; others must be coaxed or bullied to act, for once, like real men. McMurphy the heroic male myth, the larger-than-life, inspires the seemingly catatonic Indian (aka: pc Native American) Chief Bromden, whose internal musings in voice-over narrate the play. J. H. Williston recites these Noble Savage tone poems as if they were particular to his character, and imbues his catatonia with individuality as well as intensity. His bond with McMurphy is a thread of real feeling running through the scenes.

I'd best be up front about it: I see the vision that animates Ken Kesey's work as not just distorted but downright dangerous. Its premise is that the world's Noble Savages, wild men who in their natural state would be joyful brothers and honor each other's dignity, are being castrated and enslaved by a vast inhuman machine run by "them". Well, it is no secret that the elites who are satisfied with the social order have scant concern with the welfare of those who reject or are rejected by it. But so far execution and lobotomy are controls of the last resort. The Chief warns "It's the truth... Even if it didn't really happen", but it's at best a half truth. And the nominated star villainess, the man hating castrating bitch who tortures helpless males into subhuman compliance, is merely a minor player. What proportion of the machinery, how many of the flourishing institutions-- prisons and hospitals and the armed forces and factories and schools-- are run by Nurse Ratcheds? The society for which "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is a model of liberation isn't the wide world, or even the mental ward, but elementary school. The bird that tries his wings over the cuckoo's nest is the sacrificial class clown, the bad boy who challenges Big Sister's tyranny and by his defiance and punishment shows the other kids the true dimension of the cage wherein their keepers have penned them.