One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a timely play in this political season in which citizens seem to be aware, more than at any other time in personal memory, that the system is rigged. Indeed, where better to investigate the means through which the powerful few define and shape the material and existential conditions of the powerless many than in a loony bin, where those in authority not only shape the physical conditions of existence, but also define and determine what constitutes psychological and emotional “normality”?
Based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name, Dale Wasserman’s 1963 theatrical adaptation tells the story of the hell-raising, anti-authoritarian R. P. McMurphy (Patrick Jordan), a convicted felon who has feigned madness in order to serve the remaining eight months of his prison term in a mental hospital instead of doing hard labor. McMurphy lands in a ward ruled over by the calmly sadistic Nurse Ratched (Kim Parker Green), who maintains her authority via a system of disciplining surveillance, psychological manipulation, and internalized fear that would put Michel Foucault in a state of awe.
Both the novel and the play wrap a parable about the insidious abuse of power by those in charge around a potent critique of the institutional treatment of the mentally ill. Kesey based his novel on his own experience of working as a night orderly in a mental institution, and the cruel, medically suspect practices his novel exposed – overmedication, psychological and emotional abuse, electroshock therapy, and lobotomy – were later used as part of the rationalization for closing down mental hospitals and deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. That might, in hindsight, have been the wrong lesson to draw: for the acutes and chronics in Kesey’s fictional ward, the institution itself is not the problem but rather the fact that it puts them at the mercy of someone who wields power with no oversight, and whose only motivation is to retain that power. The play’s emotional punch comes from our dread about the foregone outcome of the clash between the cocky McMurphy – who is so confident he can best the system that he bets all he’s got on himself – and Ratched, who holds cards he doesn’t even know exist.
Cuckoo’s Nest is above all interested in how psychological manipulation helps those in power maintain the status quo. We see this most potently played out in a devastating confrontation between Nurse Ratched and Billy Bibbit, a young man so terrified of his mother’s disapproval that he’s rendered virtually speechless by a debilitating stutter (played with heartbreaking sensitivity by the superb Nick Lehane). When Billy, having finally lost his virginity to a prostitute McMurphy has sneaked into the ward, suddenly finds himself able to defy Nurse Ratched with fluid confidence, she instantly reduces him back to a stuttering cower by reminding him of how disappointed his mother will be when she hears of his behavior. Ratched’s use of her superior insight into the inmates’ neuroses and psychoses to keep them in a state of subjection to her will is a vivid illustration of the principle that knowledge equals power.
The play’s interest in the effect of psychological manipulation extends into the political sphere, as well. Unlike the film version starring Jack Nicholson, in which we don’t discover that the giant, silent Chief Bromden (the imposing Leandro Cano) can speak until well into the story, Wasserman’s play follows the novel’s lead in positioning the Chief as a narrator, interlacing his experience of disenfranchisement as a Native American at the mercy of dominant white culture with the mental patients’ subjugation to the power structure of the mental ward. Thus the play also functions to dissect the ways the system uses the internalization of racism to oppress people of color. The enormous Chief repeatedly expresses the belief that he’s not “big enough” to fight back, his vision of himself having been shaped by white culture’s marginalization of his people and his history. It’s up to McMurphy to help Chief realize the mental and physical strength that goes with his size; in many ways, although it’s McMurphy who sets the action of the play in motion and drives it forward, the character who has the most transformative journey is the Chief.
The barebones production is compelling and gripping. Director Melissa Martin has assembled a huge and talented cast to populate Tony Ferrieri’s eerily imposing mental ward, which, with its forced-perspective foreshortening, realizes in architectural form the equivalent to Ratched’s discombobulating menace. Barbed wire along the upper rails of the house pens the audience in the space as well, suggesting our own imprisonment in a system clearly rigged in favor of those who already hold power. Costumes by Angela Vesco complement Ferrieri’s disorienting set, with blinding white sixties-era uniforms for the institution staff and a range of pajama-like outfits for the patients that render them childlike and vulnerable. Parker Green brings a steely coldness to Ratched, offering a crystalline surface off of which Jordan can bounce his feisty, antic McMurphy. In addition to Cano and Lehane, standout performances in the ensemble include Randy Kovitz, urbane and fidgety as Harding, a voluntary inmate dealing with repressed homosexuality; Michael Lane Sullivan, squinting and disconnected as Martini, a hallucinating schizophrenic; and Dave Mansuelo as the bomb-obsessed Scanlon.