Bumpy Flight

The Marin revival of Cuckoo's Nest is a sturdy, if reserved, rendition of the archetypal good-vs.-evil play

Portraying an archetypal character as anything other than a cliche is no small feat. Imagine the difficulty of playing in a carnival of archetypes and you have an idea of the challenges facing the cast of the Marin Theatre Company's 25th-anniversary revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, sturdily if somewhat dispassionately directed by Lee Sankowich.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- the quixotic '60s cult novel by Ken Kesey in which an idealistic free spirit is done in by the forces of institutional society -- is an archetypal tale of good vs. evil, the hero vs. the villain. It is shaped by a few ultrasimple defining principles, such as: It's better to risk failure than never to try at all. Or: What the so-called mentally ill need is a little freedom to express themselves. "Perhaps," as one of the patients tells another, "the more insane a man is, the more powerful he can become." And -- critically -- watch out for strong women; first they'll castrate a healthy man, then they'll turn him into a shaking, dribbling vegetable.

Kesey was one of the original exponents of recreational drugs, and together with his cohorts, the Merry Pranksters (including the high priest of LSD, Timothy Leary), he roamed the country in a converted school bus. It was an era in which all you needed was love.

Adapted by Dale Wasserman, the play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was first produced on Broadway in 1963, starring Kirk Douglas, and was soundly panned by the critics. MTC Artistic Director Sankowich gave it a triumphant off-Broadway revival in 1971, starring William Devane as McMurphy (and featuring an unknown comic actor named Danny DeVito). He then brought it home to the Bay Area, where it enjoyed an unprecedented (and to date record-breaking) five-year run. In the mid-'70s it was made into a movie (which, you'll recall, earned the top four Oscars for the creative team and its star, Jack Nicholson).

What are we to make of Cuckoo's Nest today? For this revival Sankowich has wisely created an evenhanded production that elicits a mixed response of nostalgia and genuine horror. It's rather like carrying fond memories of your first terrifying roller-coaster ride, and then returning to see that it's not really that gigantic after all. You scream as you shoot down the track, but only for fun; you're not really frightened. Then you talk about how scary it used to be.

Set designer J.B. Wilson has created a ward day room that opens out to include the audience. Upstage is the nurse's station, a locked glass room dominated by an electrical control panel of red, orange, and green blinking lights. The nurses can keep an eye on things, but -- and here's where fiction intrudes conveniently on real life -- can't hear what's being said. So the patients are free to plot and conspire.

The play and the book are both narrated by a catatonic Indian from a long-defunct tribe, Chief Bromden (given dignity and authority by Lee A. Sprague), whose paranoid delusions ironically provide a philosophic anchor to the action. The chief's thoughts, in which he "talks" to his long-dead father, are chillingly accurate descriptions of how society at large squashes the individual and renders him (in this case the masculine pronoun is apt; these fearful nightmares all seem to be very much about women) impotent. There's a big black machine underground, the chief says, and "they're putting people in one end and out comes what they want."

This classic battle between hero and oppressor is being waged on one side by the rakishly independent Randle P. McMurphy (Ron Kaell) and on the other by the personification of all that is terrifying: a controlling woman named Nurse Ratched (Jamie Jones). McMurphy's army is a ragtag bunch of dysfunctional mental patients who, in his words, have no guts. On Nurse Ratched's team are a spineless doctor, a junior nurse, and three orderlies, who routinely torture the chief for fun. She also presides over an insidious little institution called the morning meeting, or group-therapy-by-humiliation.

McMurphy has been transferred to this state hospital from a prison work farm where he assaulted a guard. He is euphoric, believing he's landed in a virtual country club where there's nothing to do but play cards, watch television, and pretend to be a mental patient. After a boisterous entrance, he squares off against Nurse Ratched and sets out to befriend the other patients. They are quickly won over and are soon flowering as human beings. They also start defying the Big Nurse, as she is called, who doesn't take this lying down. The playing field is far from level, however. Ratched has extra weapons in her arsenal: electroshock therapy and, as a last resort, the prefrontal lobotomy. Before too long, there's a showdown. Guess who wins.

Cuckoo's Nest works as drama by drawing characters simply and clearly and then pitting them one after the other against the Evil One. The poignantly affecting framing device of Chief Bromden's voice-over is enhanced by Kurt Landisman's lighting design, which projects psychedelic imagery onto the hospital walls, and Dan Dugan's sound, which supplies chirping birds, honking geese, and rushing waters. In contrast is the hospital's harsh fluorescent glare and the screech of Nurse Ratched's voice over the large, old-fashioned microphone in the nurse's station.

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