LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
By Elyse Sommer
My most vivid memory of the 1970s Off-Broadway revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is my intense antipathy for Nurse Ratched. And I wasn't alone. When the time came for the actors to take their bows, Janet Ward, who played Ratched, was greeted by hisses and boos. The actors exited from the stage by walking down the aisle and several audience members, partly but not wholly in jest, whispered "Bitch" as Ward passed them.
When I went to see the revival of Dale Wasserman's somewhat updated adaptation of Ken Kesey's 1962 cult novel that's now playing at the Royale, the audience greeted Amy Morton's curtain call with nothing but applause. It's not that Morton 's Nurse Ratched isn't chilly enough to freeze water in an ice cube tray but a case of a play that's now just another psychodrama which happens to be worth seeing since Chicago's Steppenwolf Threatre Company has given it the sort of fresh and vigorous production for which it is noted.
It is because the Steppenwolf's hallmark is tight ensemble acting that I begin my comments with Amy Morton rather than with Gary Sinise, who has star billing. While Sinise as Randle P. McMurphy is the only cast member eligible to be nominated for a Tony as leading actor in a play (a nomination he is more than likely going to get), the success of this Cuckoo's Nest is very much in the Steppenwolf tradition. As McMurphy is the merry prankster who leads the hapless and hopeless inmates of a mental institution to rebel against Ratched's wretched regime, so Sinise is more like the regular lead player in a well-known chamber ensemble -- in this case an ensemble that arrives in New York with the cache of a sold-out run in London as well as in its home town .
Unlike Jack Nicholson, who played McMurphy with the force of a tornado, Sinise is more laid-back and playful, a good-ole belly scratching country-boy. Oh, he's still the instant leader of the day room of the mental hospital where he's landed as a result of a smart-alecky pretense at madness to get out of the local prison work farm, but he seems less maniacal and more vulnerable -- like the other victims of this authoritarian environment.
In an ingenious bit of nostalgic casting, one of these psychological wrecks, the seemingly deaf and dumb Chief Bromden, is played by Tim Sampson, a Native American who happens to be the son of the man who played the same part in the movie. One of the best and most moving aspects of director Terry Kinney's staging are Chief Bromden's internal monologues (mostly addressed to his father) at the beginning and in between scenes. They add a deep, dreamlike sadness absent from previous versions of the play. Sampson's performance is as imposing as his physical stature. His final scene is the evening's emotional and dramatic pinnacle.
As Chief Bromden's first dreamy sequence ends, the other patients too stir from their beds and Sage Marie Carter's moody projections give way to the antiseptic whiteness of Robert Brill's smartly designed hospital day room. That one-set scene includes a glassed-in corner office for the ever watchful Ratched and her assistant (Stephanie Childers) who's as meek and docile as the patients. Except for introducing us to the assorted crazies -- some more so than others, some who could leave if they had the emotional strength -- the first act is mainly a prelude to the electricity that explodes into a riotous party organized by McMurphy and his final battle royal with Ratched -- the plot is basically a series of minor battles which begin with McMurphy whipings up the other men to rebel against the rigid rules and win such small victories as watching the World Series on TV.
Having already established the star power of this ensemble, it's hard not to single out a few besides the already mentioned Sinise, Morton and Sampson. For example, Ross Lehman is unforgettable as the intellectual Harding (a character worthy of his own play) and Eric Johner wraps himself around your heart as the stammering mother-whipped virgin. There's a lot of beating up on wives and mothers here (even Chief Bromden's sense of smallness is mother-induced) with the only exceptions being McMurphy's giving and forgiving girlfriend, the aptly named Candy (a delightful Mariann Mayberry).
All in all this One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is all about fine acting, the splendid design work and that ending which still has you gripping the edge of your seat. Maybe a play doesn't have to pass the test of "greatness" or "classic" to nevertheless satisfy the test of providing a high energy live theater experience.