Reviewed by on    Community Theatre  

 

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest has become a period piece. However,
that doesn't necessarily mean that Dale Wasserman's adaptation of the
Ken Kesey novel about life in a state mental institution in the early
1960s has become dated. It still has historic importance in what it
has to tell us about U.S. psychiatric care in another era — and let's
remember that Kesey's novel, based on the author's own experiences
working in a state veterans hospital, was considered in its time to be
a blistering indictment of a culture that condoned electroconvulsive
therapy and pre-frontal lobotomy as legitimate ways of dealing with
mental illness.

These treatments — now largely abandoned — provide some of the most
harrowing moments in the Ottawa Little Theatre's new production of the
play. It is a worthy revival, even though director Tom Taylor and his
cast are repeatedly challenged by script weaknesses that have become
more troublesome with the passage of time.
But what redeems the play is the character of that quintessential
rebel, Randle Patrick McMurphy, whose arrival as a patient causes all
hell to break loose. And what sustains this production more than
anything else is the performance of Jon Payne in that role. McMurphy,
in trouble with the law and committed to the hospital for psychiatric
evaluation, proceeds to wreak havoc with the system. And, as a
consequence, he ends up paying a terrible price for his rebellion — a
rebellion rooted in an innate desire to make the hospital an better
place in which to be a patient.
Wasserman's stage adaptation recognizes that conflict is the stuff of
good drama and he has created a formidable pair of protagonists. On
the one hand, the jaunty rule-defying McMurphy; on the other hand the
wicked witches of the east and west combined in that most insidious of
control freaks, the awful Nurse Ratched.
Payne's first appearance — loud, swaggering, pot-bellied, profane,
insolent — sends out a signal that he won't be making compromises with
this character. He smacks of trailer trash, of the chronic loser. His
presence is an immediate irritant and an offence against order. Can
you really blame the starchy Nurse Ratched from recoiling? You can
almost smell the stale tobacco on McMurphy's breath.
So McMurphy is a threat to authority. But he's more than that — he's a
threat to the very system that Nurse Ratched and her fawning flunkies
hold dear. And the reason he's such a danger is beautifully defined in
Payne's performance. There's a rough-edged goodness in this McMurphy,
a simple generosity of spirit that eventually nudges the coarse,
swaggering bravado aside and makes him start caring about his fellow
patients. The spectacle of a patient being reduced to pathetic
meltdown by Nurse Ratched's therapeutic methods may trigger McMurphy
into a blustering protest that is rude and impolite — but it's a
genuinely concerned one. Perhaps there is something unconscious in the
example he's setting — Payne's McMurphy is no deep thinker — but it's
an example that starts liberating his fellow patients as they begin to
question the rules.
When One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest was revived in London in 2004,
Daily Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish explained in the production's
program notes why this decades-old play continued to be important:
the reason, despite advances in care, was that many of today's
mentally ill continue to feel the same powerlessness as decades
before. “Seen in the context of a mental health system that's still
far from perfect, a revival of the play couldn't be more necessary,”
he wrote.
That assertion still seems valid today — despite the script's flaws.
Wasserman brings little psychological depth to Nurse Ratched's monster
image — so it's a struggle for actress Linda Webster to get beyond the
one-dimensional villain that the playwright seems content with
providing. Webster works hard — she manages something distinctly
unsettling about that controlled barracuda smile and the sense of
something fearsome lurking underneath — and she is able to offer
glimpses of a woman inwardly terrified of losing control. But really,
the role as written keeps defeating her.
There's also a recurring danger of the other patients lapsing into
crude caricatures and little more. The production largely avoids this
because of the strength of the performances — in particular the work
of J. Taylor Morris as a vulnerable kid afflicted with a terrible
stutter, Allan MacDonald as a decent guy whose marital problems are
tearing him apart, and Kenneth Forbes as a stoic aboriginal.
On the other hand, there's little that can be done with the
atrociously written parts of two women in McMurphy's life: they remain
gross, shallow fantasies.
Robin Riddihough's excellent set oozes institutional grimness. David
Magladry's lighting is suitably stark. The sound system, however,
needs attention: crucial voice-over moments are largely incoherent.

.One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
By Dale Wasserman
Based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Ottawa Little Theatre to March 12
Director: Tom Taylor
Set: Robin Riddihough
Lighting: David Magladry
Sound: Andrew Hamlin
Costumes: Peggy Laverty
Cast:
Chief Bromden…………………………………………….Kenneth Forbes
Aide Warren……………………………………………….Doug Thicke
Aide Williams……………………………………………..Ryan Van Buskirk
Nurse Ratched……………………………………………..Linda Webster
Nurse Flinn………………………………………………..Marah Shields
Dale Harding………………………………………………Allan MacDonald
Billy Bibbit………………………………………………..J. Taylor Morris
Scanlon……………………………………………………Keith Bider
Cheswick………………………………………………….Geoffrey Wale
Martini……………………………………………………Christopher Torti
Ruckley……………………………………………………Eric Anderson
Randle P. McMurphy……………………………………..Jon Payne
Dr. Spivey…………………………………………………Ian Fraser
Aide Turkle………………………………………………..Howard Kaplan
Candy Starr………………………………………………..Sandy Wynne
Sandra……………………………………………………..Samantha Oxley