Bumpy Flight

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

Sankowich has effectively directed the company so that individual performances stand out but never overwhelm the ensemble. It's a Who's Who of Bay Area talent including Sean San Jose Blackman as the pubescent stutterer, Billy Bibbit. (Kesey qualifies as an American Dickens in his ability to name characters.) Robert E. Ernst is brilliant as the brainy but utterly ineffectual Dale Harding. Joe Bellan puts his own twist on the wildly delusional Martini by creating an obsessive-compulsive who plasters down his hair with his fingers and then pretends to set it in pin curls. Larry Bedini is a touching Cheswick, and Richard J. Silberg makes Ruckly a haunting and silent Christ figure whose presence forms a backdrop for the action. The incomparable John Robb shines his toothy grin with an alternating air of menace -- when he "shoots" from an ammunition box he is never without -- and benevolence.

But Cuckoo's Nest doesn't pack much of a wallop. Aside from its age, which shows all too plainly, the problem lies in the casting and the performances of the two antagonists, McMurphy and Ratched. Jamie Jones marches courageously into the thankless role of the Big Nurse, but her power seems to come more from her arsenal of weapons -- threats of shock treatments and lobotomies -- than from her core desire to control at all costs. Ratched is someone we should all have nightmares about. Jones is a good actress, trying to earn a living.

The fiercely independent McMurphy must come across as all things to all people: sexy, funny, and overwhelmingly charming. He must literally blow the doors off the ward when he enters. Ron Kaell is a pleasant enough actor, and he even has some touching moments as the chief's only friend and advocate. But he's just not powerful enough to represent Good in this mother of all battles against Evil. He wears a cap most of the time, and it's shocking and distracting to see, when he occasionally doffs it, that he's bald. It makes him unexpectedly vulnerable -- more the man behind the curtain than the Immortal Wizard of Oz.

And maybe that's Sankowich's intention. It is certainly simplistic in the '90s to pretend the values of the '60s could and should have triumphed. Still, it's a reminder that the show is a period piece, a remnant of '60s nostalgia, and can only be viewed as such.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest runs through Oct. 22 at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley; call 388-5208.

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