Theater review: freeFall's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

A masterful McMurphy but some puzzling choices.

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click to enlarge LIFE FORCE: James Oliver is McMurphy, Ken Kesey's crusading anti-hero. - MIKE WOOD LIGHTING
LIFE FORCE: James Oliver is McMurphy, Ken Kesey's crusading anti-hero.

There are at least three reasons why the intermittently successful freeFall Theatre version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest offers a less than totally satisfying experience.

The first is the “immersive” staging of the piece, which situates the action all over the theater, and puts the audience on stage with the actors. This strategy worked beautifully for freeFall’s The Wild Party several years ago — we were guests at the party, too — and seemed thrilling if not entirely logical at Man of La Mancha years later. But in Cuckoo’s Nest the effect is to distract us, so that Nurse Ratched’s center of power is way over behind one wall, while an important couple of rooms are placed against a far opposite wall, and centerstage belongs largely to asylum inmates in group therapy.

Adding to the mystery of this diffusion of focus is the question of the meaning of the audience’s placement. Are we all inmates in an asylum (this cliché is, I hope, not intended)? Do we “share” the drama more when it’s happening right under our noses? I don’t think so: the most potent scenes are the ones that traverse an emotional, not physical, distance, and the most natural response to seeing the audience in the action is to ignore it in favor of the characters and the plot. Yes, “immersion” and theater-in-the-round can work beautifully with some texts. I’m just not sure that Cuckoo’s Nest is one of them.

Then there’s the problem of the central conflict, between Nurse Ratched, authority figure, and R.P. McMurphy, the free spirit who comes to her asylum and strives to transform it with his irrepressible energy. This combat — Ratched v. McMurphy — is the lead theme in the play, and was particularly riveting in the 1975 movie featuring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. But Cuckoo’s Nest author Dale Wasserman (adapting Ken Kesey’s novel) fails to render this conflict compelling in Act One, thereby making its powerful conclusion in Act Two come across as unearned. And this leads me to the third of the problems with this production, which is Roxanne Fay’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched not as a cruel dictator but as a rather sensible and respectable force for law and order. If Nurse Ratched isn’t a villain, then how should we feel about McMurphy’s resistance to her? I’m not saying that the play needs to be melodramatic in order to work, but surely Nurse Ratched should represent repression and not justice, bad law and not good. As it stands, the worst thing about her is her too-prompt suggestion that a surgical procedure may be the best answer to McMurphy’s rebelliousness. Aside from this, she seems no more overbearing than any administrator would have to be in a room full of psychotics. Can the play really work if we sympathize with its leading antagonist?

Fortunately, James Oliver does a fine job as agitator McMurphy, persuading us easily of his instincts for life, liberty, and the pursuit of exhilaration. If his contempt for Nurse Ratched isn’t always well-motivated, his insistence on bringing joie de vivre to his fellow inmates still makes wonderful sense and creates some delightful scenes. One of the best occurs when he smuggles some prostitutes into the institution, instructing one of them to help young Billy Bibbitt (Greyson Lewis) lose his virginity. But there are also moving encounters between McMurphy and Chief Bramden (the excellent Michael Nichols), the “deaf and dumb” Native American who nevertheless acts as the play’s narrator. And as Dale Harding, the de facto head of the mental patient group when McMurphy arrives, Larry Alexander is an immensely agreeable figure, all the more likable when we learn that he’s in the hospital by choice. Steve Garland is first-rate as Ratched’s supervisor Dr. Spivey, and Natalie Symons is funny and endearing as the heart-of-gold courtesan Candy Starr.

In the small role of a bribable hospital orderly, Bob Devin Jones is impeccable. Director Eric Davis may have erred in the landscape of his production, but he’s coaxed top-notch performances from everyone in his large cast. If Steven K. Mitchell’s set is so minimal as to hardly exist, Scott Daniel’s costumes couldn’t be more felicitous. The occasional abstract projections that comment on the live action didn’t make an impression on me of any sort.

Surely Cuckoo’s Nest wants to be a vote for human freedom, human happiness and even rapture. But these values never really face their opposites in the freeFall version¸ so we can’t fully feel their ultimate victory. Yes, there are reasons to enjoy this adaptation. But the key ones — the central ones — are unfortunately missing.  

Runs through Aug. 31 at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 7 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun. $29-$44; students, teachers, seniors, military pay $26-$41.

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