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.
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.