In the 92 years of Academy Awards, there are but three films that have walked away with all five major Oscars. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is among that elite group.
The stage version of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” by Dale Wasserman (he also wrote “Man of La Mancha”), is at Ridgefield Theater Barn in Connecticut now through June 22. It is directed by Kevin Sosbe. Ticket information: RidgefieldTheaterBarn.org. The stage play was first produced in the 1960s, starring Kirk Douglas, and Broadway productions of it since have won awards.
The 1975 screen adaptation of Ken Kesey’s acclaimed novel was honored for Best Picture (produced by Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz), Actor (Jack Nicholson), Actress (Louise Fletcher), Director (Milos Forman), and Writing (Bo Goldman, Laurence Hauben). That clean sweep is the very rare quintuple crown of Oscar immortality.
It takes an admirably adventurous local theater company to produce a homegrown version of a beloved film classic that is firmly lodged in the consciousness of anyone going to see the stage version who also has seen the movie.
In that regard, Ridgefield Theater Barn gets bonus points for not being afraid to test its mettle with what is a very challenging serio-comic piece of theater.
Set in a psychiatric hospital, an ensemble of eight supporting actors play patients of varying functionality who orbit around the new arrival, Randle P. McMurphy, also known as Mac (played by an exuberant Fred Rueck).
Big Mac’s happily arriving at the mental ward fresh from a prison farm. His perfectly sane mind has reasoned that medical housing is a lot more accommodating than where he was, not to mention more conducive to his talent for running roughshod over everyone and everything. How you gonna keep him down on the farm after he’s seen, as one patient says, “psycho-ceramics—the crack pots of humanity.”
As overbearing McMurphy, the bombastic Mr. Rueck bursts on stage through double swing doors, instantly intimidating and challenging the irregular regulars of the ward, who are awestruck by his “here I am to save the day!” posturing.
Except there’s one patient who is singularly un-awestruck: Dale Harding (Timothy Huber), a model of sangfroid, at least on the surface.
As the most stable and erudite of the group, Harding is their de facto leader. After a brief standoff, he and McMurphy form an alliance.
In one of the play’s central roles, Mr. Huber delivers a smoothly modulated, poignant portrayal of a conflicted man not sure who or where he wants to be, and who bides his time hiding from cold reality. As both a worthy foil and sidekick for McMurphy, he is the play’s secondary conscience. Mr. Huber’s canny performance is a highlight of the show.
While the subordinate patients submit to their institutionalized state, as well as to the ramrod rules enforced robotically by Nurse Ratched (Alicia Dempster), it takes cocky Mac, a boiling cauldron of bravado with no patience (or respect) for authority to raise the stakes.
To prove to his lackeys that his swagger is as much substance as style, McMurphy wagers them that he can bend the intransigent Nurse Ratched to his iron will.
With McMurphy the center of gravity, it’s up to Nurse Ratched to give as good as she gets, creating the tension that defines their fraught relationship. Facing nominal pushback, Mr. Rueck breathes fire like a Dany Targaryen dragon, relishing his center-stage dominance. But it takes two to tangle, and it’s pretty much a one-man show when they face off. (Since I caught the second performance, I’d like to think their critically dramatic relationship will become more mutually edgy as the show’s run progresses.)
In the airless unfunny farm over which dour Nurse Ratched presides, McMurphy appears to foment anarchy. Yet, given the oppressive circumstances, the only thing subversive in his intention is to restore a sense of dignity and free will to those he views as the downtrodden, captives of a rigged system oblivious to their best interests.
Among those captives is Chief Bromden (A.M. Bhatt), as formidable-looking as a bear but who purrs rather than roars; he doesn’t speak. As the story’s narrator, he is heard intermittently in voice-overs.
The most affecting moments in the play occur between McMurphy and the Chief, notably when they embrace at one point, and at the emotionally-charged end of play. As Chief, A.M. Bhatt beautifully conveys vulnerability, regret, and a quiet pride born of ancestral pedigree. (The sound on his recorded voiceovers could be a tad clearer.)
Another performance I found fascinating was Mark Hankla’s, as the lobotomized Ruckly. For long stretches he is on stage in a Jesus-like pose, framed by a window casement, with arms splayed, looming above the fray, wholly catatonic.
I found the inert physicality performed by Mr. Hankla to be an extraordinary exercise in self-control and concentration. His silent presence throughout is haunting and compelling, a human prop that projects anguish and pain. I also was struck by his resemblance to the actor Christopher Lloyd, who was in the movie version of “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
As the child-like Cheswick, Stephen Zerilli stayed fully connected to every moment on stage, calibrating his reactions with instinctive timing and precision, making kinetic use of his body and mannerisms to lighten the mood whenever appropriate. In the language of actors, he made great “choices.”
A shout-out too goes to Brianna Bowman as Cindy Starr, McMurphy’s girlfriend he spirits into the ward. Her giddy energy was fun to watch, and totally in tune with her character.
In the second act, which plays stronger than the first, McMurphy arranges a wild party for his pals – girls, pills, booze included. He exposes young Billy Bibbit (Sam Bass), a lost boy browbeaten by his mother, to his first sexual encounter. Sam Bass is all too convincing as the tragic figure whose confidence is as stunted (“I’m not tough”) as his speech is stuttered. We ache for Mr. Bass’s Billy, even as we applaud the actor’s fine work.
McMurphy puts up a brave and defiant front as he and the Chief are subjected to electro-shock treatment. A bigger shock for McMurphy is finding out from Harding that he committed himself voluntarily and can walk out at any time on his own, as can others in the ward. Captives, maybe, of their own free will.
McMurphy is incredulous at that revelation, and he is further gobsmacked to be reminded that, unlike them, he is not free to leave on his own; he can be kept in the ward for an indeterminate period, subject to electro-shock treatments and worse. (Maybe that prison farm wasn’t so bad after all.)
In the end, an uncontrollable explosion of anger at Nurse Ratched proves McMurphy’s undoing. It also leads to liberation—both literal and figurative—for his comrades, as Randall P. McMurphy, smothered lovingly with a farewell kiss from Chief Bromden, passes into unlikely but justifiable martyrdom.
Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.