Review: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" at Oshawa Little Theatre

Joe Szekeres

"THIS CUCKOO’S NEST SOARS HIGH"

On a personal note, playwright adaptations of classic literature have seen their hits (The Diary of Anne Frank, Tuesdays with Morrie, To Kill a Mockingbird) and misses (musical versions of A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel) on the professional and community theatre circuit. Nevertheless, these hit and miss adaptations do attempt to convey some commentary on social changes in their worlds.

Dale Wasserman’s 1963 solid stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 extraordinary novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is another hit social commentary gem that all actors want to add to their resumes. The story involves the larger than life Randle Patrick McMurphy who contrives to be committed to a psychiatric hospital to avoid a prison sentence on a work farm. Once incarcerated in the institution, the cost of his decision becomes apparent when he finds himself in direct conflict with Nurse Ratched. The lives of the patients and staff in the ward are forever changed as they are caught in the tug of war between these two strong willed characters.

The original Broadway production “struggled for several months” with New York reviews calling the script ‘murderous’ and ‘appalling taste’, according to Tom Vallance who wrote the obituary for Dale Wasserman in the January 7, 2009 edition of the U.K. based newspaper, The Independent. Mr. Vallance also reported that a subsequent production in 1971 of Nest fared better at the New York box office with 2,000 performances. The theatrical production is not intended as a recreation of the 1975 Milos Forman directed film with Jack Nicholson which focuses more on the novel.

Artistic Director/General Manger of Theatre 3x60, Carey Nicholson, is not one to shy away from Mr. Wasserman’s challenging script and its hard-hitting social issues as they appear even more relevant today in the uncertainty of our world. Along with many dedicated behind the scene volunteers led by producer Liz Pask and stage manager Amanda Klein, Ms. Nicholson handles confidently the reins as director of this gritty, visceral and raw Cuckoo’s Nest, now playing at the Oshawa Little Theatre.  

Melanie Baker’s remarkably stunning set design of the institutionalized common room immediately captures our attention. With assistance from backstage crew and actors, the set seamlessly and quietly changes to different perspectives and angles without any of the annoying, squeaking and squealing of objects shuffled about. Ms. Baker’s use of monochromatic colour of white reinforces strongly what Kara Gilbey, Amy Lawrence and Joanne Wray wanted to reflect in the makeup and costume design. The white colour of the nurses’ uniforms along with Chief Bromden’s costume, for example, show these characters have been here for a long time. The new arrivals of patients have some initial colour in the costumes. As the story progresses, we notice some white creeping into their costumes and eyes which represents the sad fact they will never leave this institution.

Colin Hughes’ institutionalized stark white lighting highlights beautifully the set, costumes and much of the internal turmoil and struggle of the characters. Pay close attention to the meshing of Mr. Hughes’ design with Reese Brunelle’s psychedelic projections and Alex Konc’s splendid choice of some synthesized music and soundscape design when we enter the garbled mind of Chief Bromden and his thoughts.  This haunting special effect will remain with you after the show. Aileen Fletcher has paid loving detail to many of the props in the common room, especially to the console television used to watch the ball game.

This company of some accomplished lead actors from Durham Region and the GTA does not struggle whatsoever with the text. Kelly Hoare’s electroshock of a performance as protagonist Randle McMurphy sets the action ablaze immediately when we hear his booming voice off stage before he bursts on the scene. Here is a man who is believably charismatic one moment in conversation with the other patients and how they should be treated, while conversely showing how potentially destructive he can be in meeting his match with Nurse Ratched, a clearly nuanced performance in anger repression by Barb Clifford.

Mr. Hoare and Ms. Clifford are wonderful to watch through their cat and mouse games for power. We laugh at some of the stunts McMurphy pulls behind ‘Big Nurse’. Through her steely staredowns, intimidating and emasculating group therapy sessions, Ms. Clifford’s strength of her performance slowly escalates to the point in the second act where we truly fear her. While Ratched stands over the lobotomized McMurphy on a  gurney Ms. Clifford, silently but effectively, utters one sentence that will send a shiver down the spine of every audience member. This matriarchal nurse has misused her power and privilege of healing through abuse.

As Chief Bromden and patient Ruckley, Tom Lynch and Andy Williamson convey a remarkably high-performance level of concentration that is intensely focused on maintaining characterization through their stillness and obliviousness to events circumventing around them. Mr. Lynch’s daring display of controlled and earnest passion in enduring recurrent racial taunts and his final action near the end of the play leaves the audience stunned and subdued.

Craig Martin and Spencer Chaisson are persuasive and convincing in their brave emotional moments as Dale Harding and Billy Bibbit.  Mr. Martin makes us even wonder why Harding is an inmate in this institution as the man is lucid in his thoughts. When Nurse Ratched tyrannically targets and marginalizes Harding through his repression of homosexual tendencies owing to the fact he cannot satisfy his unfaithful wife, we cannot help but feel compassion for this man.  Like Mr. Martin, Mr. Chaisson draws our compassion for the stuttering Billy who cannot develop female relationships with women because of his domineering oedipal mother who, Nurse Ratched points out, will always be disappointed with her son.  The organized party to encourage Billy to lose his virginity does provide some brief comic relief, but his off-stage suicide at the end of the party is truly horrifying.

Kudos to the supporting players, some who have appeared either on the stage before or as first timers. Tyler Cox as patient Scanlon also shows his skill in maintaining intense focus as he makes the bomb at the top of the show. Drew Douglas, as hooker Candy Starr, notches up the sexual tension through teasing and temptation of the inmates. We even see a moment when she dances with Billy and sweetly shows that she does care about him. David McKinnon (Patient Martini) and John Mencarelli (Dr. Spivey) offer solid performances as they too are affected by McMurphy’s breath of fresh air in their lives.

For the most part, Zahid Ahmed (Turkle), Antony Augusto (Warren), Billy Keefer (Williams), Carly Midgely (Sandra), Oliver Parker (Cheswick) and Hannah Stanutz (Nurse Flinn) are promising actors, but there are moments where volume and enunciation are not as clear as they should be.  This is extremely important for them to monitor since Cuckoo’s Nest is a heavy dialogue driven play.  As performances continue, I’m sure these actors will pay attention to this important reminder.

Wasserman’s script truly does cut deep to the heart of one of the themes of the play which is the exploration of identity with the cost of both losing and claiming one’s true self. It takes the perceptive vision of an astute director and her dedicated production team to make this drama soar high, and this one does.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest continues at 62 Russett Avenue in Oshawa February 8, 9, 10, 15 and 16, 2018 at 7:30 pm and February 11 and 17 at 2 pm. Tickets may be purchased at the box office before each performance or visit www.oshawalittletheatre.com for further information or telephone 905-723-0282.

Photo courtesy of Raph Nogal Photography.

Top left: Kelly Hoare L-R: Tyler Cox, Craig Martin, John Mencarelli, Barb Clifford, Spencer Chaisson, David McKinnon, Oliver Parker.