When it comes to adaptations of classic stories, spectators and critics try to judge the interpretation on its own terms. Sometimes, a particular version seems to rely so heavily on the original source material, that the experience feels like a pale imitation of a classic tale, instead of a fresh take. Fortunately, this is not the case with New Village Arts Theatre’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
In the early 1960’s, Randle P. McMurphy (Jeffery Jones) goes to jail after being convicted of battery and illegal gambling. He is also charged, though not convicted, of statutory rape.
Eventually, Randle is transferred to a mental institution. He is a flamboyant troublemaker whose rebellious attitude wins over the patients at the hospital. Unfortunately, the head administrative nurse, Nurse Ratched (Co-founder and Executive Artistic Director of New Village Arts, Kristianne Kurner) does not tolerate his bad boy attitude and tensions grow between the two of them.
I want to remind audience members that this drama was written more than a decade before the unforgettable film adaptation. Dale Wasserman’s writing does a wonderful job of honoring Ken Kesey’s novel, but gives it a life of its own.
Part of the reason this is fresh, for those familiar with the plot, is because virtually the entire show takes place in the psychiatric ward of the hospital. Director Claudio Raygoza (ion theatre company founder and Executive Artistic Director), develops a sense of dread that grows as the stakes rise between Randle and Nurse Ratched in the ward.
Raygoza also designs the scenery and he has created an extraordinary set. He somehow transforms the small stage into a realistic setting for the cuckoo house.
Another memorable aspect is Chris Renda’s eerie lighting design. His use of darkness during many of the nighttime scenes is haunting and adds impact to some of the more disturbing moments.
No one is going to label One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a feel good experience, and the mood is already intense even before Randle is introduced. Yet, there are two qualities that keep this play from being a downer.
The first is the warped sense of humor sprinkled throughout the acts. The jokes mostly come from Randle’s unpredictable lifestyle, but some of the patients including Dale Harding (Justin Lang), Scanlon (Eddie Yaroch), Cheswick (Tim West) and Ruckley (John Tessmer) have moments to shine.
The other aspect is that, in an unconventional way, this is inspirational material. Randle’s attempts to try and have the other patients stand up for themselves is poignant at times. All the famous moments such as Randle taking a shot at lifting a shower room control panel and the unforgettable resolution are still beautifully powerful.
Instead of imitating the famous performers who have played the iconic characters in the best picture winner, all the actors make the roles their own. Jeffrey Jones, who is mostly known for his San Diego Theatre Critics Circle’s lead actor award winning performance in The Little Flower of East Orange, physically looks a little like the young Jack Nicholson, but his mannerisms and vocal delivery is unique. Jones is loose, wild and edgy, which is exactly what someone playing McMurphy should be.
Kurner, does not portray Nurse Ratched with an emotionless steely persona as Louise Fletcher did in the flick. Instead, Kurner plays her with artificial chirpiness which makes her heartless actions all the more gut wrenching.
As good as Jones and Kurner are, I was equally impressed with Brian Abraham’s take on Chief Bromden. His many monologues, which describe his horrific day-to-day existence, are handled with raw potency. While he isn’t given a lot of dialogue outside of his speeches, his chemistry with Jones is profoundly moving.
Equally bleak and uplifting, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a triumph. While this rendition isn’t as famous as the book or movie, it’s just as memorable.