Curtain Call: Cuckoo’s Nest

Curtain Call

Little Theatre Brings Up the Lights on 2014 with Psychological Drama

A conspicuous figure of Mid-Century counterculture, Ken Kesey was inspired to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while working the night shift at Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, often under the influence of the psychoactive drugs he volunteered to take as part of a CIA-financed Project MKUltra study. When the novel was published in 1962, conditions in government-run psychiatric hospitals were notoriously deplorable. Public criticism and the transfer of the burden of mental health care costs from states to the federal government led to a deinstitutionalization which decreased the number of state psychiatric hospital beds by more than 90 percent.
More than 50 years since Kesey’s novel debuted, it will be hard to watch Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre’s new production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest without wondering where these characters would find themselves in 2014. On prescription meds or self-medicating with illegal drugs and alcohol? Living in their parents’ basement and struggling to find and/or hold a job? Homeless? In light of the fact that the U.S. has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, most of them would probably be in jail or prison or at least on probation/parole.
In the ward voluntarily, to avoid statutory rape charges, anti-hero Randle P. McMurphy (John Schugard) wouldn’t likely have the alternative today. On the other end of the spectrum, inmate Dale Harding (Eric Lutz), is presumably a closeted homosexual, a charge against which the scourge of insanity has since been lifted although many Americans consider it a crime against “god.”
Director Billy Joe Herbert has set the play not in the early ‘60s but rather, like the 1975 Academy Award-winning Milos Forman film, in the mid ‘70s. If he had set it any later, consultant Dr. Mark Bohn warned Herbert, the treatments patients receive in the play would have been obsolete. Although still administered, modern day electroshock therapy treatments are not like those given in Cuckoo’s Nest, which would be later banned.

From left: Dr. Mark Bohn (Dr. Spivey), John Schugard (Randle P. McMurphy), Regina Yeager (Nurse Ratched) and K.K. Gordon (Chief Bromden) rehearse a scene for Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre’s new production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

From left: Dr. Mark Bohn (Dr. Spivey), John Schugard (Randle P. McMurphy), Regina Yeager (Nurse Ratched) and K.K. Gordon (Chief Bromden) rehearse a scene for Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre’s new production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Dr. Bohn is not only a consultant, he also portray’s the production’s Dr. Spivey. At a hospital such as this one in the Pacific Northwest, the staff “would do whatever they wanted until someone came in and said you can’t do it,” Bohn advised a curious cast member during one rehearsal.
We talked to the director in the wake of last week’s snowstorm. Although that day’s rehearsal had been canceled — with only a week and day to go before opening night — he was remarkably relaxed.
They had planned for inclement weather Herbert confirmed, starting rehearsals immediately upon the close of October’s production of National Pastime.
Herbert prefers acting and does not ordinary direct. He actually played Martini in Little Theatre’s 1990 production of Cuckoo’s Nest. In this instance, he went on a mission of sorts to prove that a straight show can be just as successful as a musical theatre production.
“If you do a (drama) well, people will definitely be receptive.”
It further occurred to him that the show could benefit from an actor as director.
“There are so many levels to these characters,” he said, citing Chief Bromden (K.K. Gordon) as an example.
No matter how good an actor you are, some roles have physical demands that cannot be ignored. Several of the actors at auditions who were considering going out for The Chief mentally crossed the name off their list when Gordon entered the room, Herbert said.
“He has to be the largest guy on stage and he certainly is.”
While the script is not explicit, he is probably there for a violent crime, reasoned Herbert.
“He’s normally played as this big silent Indian who doesn’t say that much but that’s not how it is in the script. He’s actually the narrator for the whole show.”
Like Herbert, Gordon has previously acted in Cuckoo’s Nest. He played the same role in Diva Theater’s Scranton production of the play more than a decade ago. That production left him standing there staring off into space as a voice over recording shared his inner thoughts. Herbert challenged Gordon to deliver that narration live and feels its one of the best roles he’s seen him perform.
“You can really see him be that little boy back when his father was an alcoholic. And his mother was abusive to his father. You can see that little boy there,” the director said.
The play is less about The Chief, however, than it is focused on the conflicted relationship between McMurphy and Nurse Mildred Ratched (Regina Yeager). The show, said Herbert, is about control. The characters are not cut and dried diagnoses, as the theme of the play defies neat and tidy social categorization.
“It proves that labels don’t really apply.”
Yet, those labels are one form of control Nurse Ratched attempts to exercise over the patients, he suggested.
“People play her as this really bitchy villain but I don’t see it that way… it’s a less interesting choice.”
Somewhere along the line she has developed issues with men and her sadistic tendencies suggest she might potentially be a sociopath herself. Regina Yeager’s Ratched is “put together,” Herbert said, an attractive woman who doesn’t flaunt her beauty but by no means is an old crone.
“She has that smirk. Women in the audience are just going to want to smack that off her face.”
She rejects all of society’s rules for her own, which is pretty much the same thing that McMurphy does, the director explained.
“She knows just want to say and do to bring all the men down and he knows just what to say and do to bring everybody back up, or so he thinks. That’s the struggle right there. When they start out all the patients are on her side and slowly she starts to see them move to his side and that’s what frustrates her… I don’t think she cares. That’s what makes her a sociopath. She doesn’t want these guys to come to physical harm but she’s not torn up if it happens.”
The stage play is very different from the film, and Herbert would argue, better. Jack Nicholson, not surprisingly, made McMurphy his own. Herbert decided to stray from the “leading male type” casting norm in selecting McMurphy and felt Shugard was charismatic enough to carry the role. (Reportedly, Ken Kesey wanted actor Gene Hackman for the 1975 film.)
Written before the Civil Rights movement, Cuckoo’s Nest contains a level of racism in keeping with reality of the time. Herbert did not cast African-Americans in the role of orderlies as the play suggests. In the mouth of actor Warren Rosengrant, at least, the slang of their language comes off sounding like “an old Southern biker.”
The one African-American in the cast is not playing an aide but rather Martini, here not a stout Italian but, Martin, an average-built black. The play is not about race, said the director who explained he didn’t want to focus attention on that issue. He’s most proud, perhaps, that his cast claims to have learned new things about themselves while prepared these roles. Jack Moran who was initially afraid to play stuttering Billy Bibbit, he said, has since conquered a few real world fears in life beyond the stage.