Monday, February 25, 2013

CUCKOO’S NEST SOARS AT THEATRE IN THE GROVE


 
The Cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Theatre in the Grove.

 
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker 

Theatre in the Grove does not shy away from productions that jar their audiences’ sensibilities, as is amply demonstrated by the current production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While the mental health system has changed radically since the late fifties (electroshock therapy and frontal lobotomies are no longer treatments du jour), the darker theme of a social order imposed by mindless obedience to an arbitrary rulebook is at least as relevant now as when the play (and book) were written.

The play (by Dale Wasserman and based on Ken Kesey’s iconic 1962 novel) portrays life on the men’s ward of an Oregon mental hospital. Despite the breadth of lunacy on the ward, order is maintained by Nurse Ratched, whose rigid rules dictate every facet of the inmates’ lives. This simmering tranquility is brought to the boiling point by the arrival of R. P. McMurphy, a very sane petty criminal and con man who feigns mental illness so that he can sit out his five month sentence in the mental hospital. The inevitable conflict between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched drives the play to its powerful and jarring conclusion.

Stevo Clay as R.P. McMurphy (right)
and Zachary Centers as Billy Bibbit.
Director Dan Harry has assembled a generally strong cast from whom he draws a number of superb performances.  Stevo Clay (R.P. McMurphy) delivers flawlessly, and is well-worth the price of admission. He is engaging, charming, iconoclastic, fast talking – the Harold Hill of the wacky factory.  Further, he seamlessly manages the character’s transitions from con to conformist to martyr.  Aleks Merilo plays Harding, the “bull goose loony” who loses top dog status to McMurphy, with intelligence and sensitivity despite the character’s sardonic bent. Zachary Centers is simply amazing as pathetic, stuttering, virginal, suicidal momma’s boy Billy Bibbit. His portrayal displays the depth of Bibbit’s complex neuroses, and he easily earns the audience sympathy that is essential to the play’s climax.

The stage is set in many ways by the slow and deliberate narration of Chief Bromden (Jim Feemster), who is able to grow psychologically into his hulking physical presence.

The rest of the patients on the ward (Ted Felt as Scanlon, William “Chandano” Fuller as Cheswick, Joshua Willis as Martini, Fred Sherrill as Ruckley, and Joey Steve as Chronic Patient), each maladjusted in his own way, manage to express their various psychoses with a flamboyance tempered by respect for the characters they portray.  Even at their looniest, there is no sense of comic mockery. Many thanks to the cast and director for their sensitivity in crafting this bizarre but restrained microcosm.

 Anita Zijdemans Boudreau brings her own interpretation to the role of Nurse Ratched. Her intent (based on what we read on-line) is to humanize the key female character by portraying her as sincerely concerned with the patients’ welfare. From our perspective, this is problematic because the role as written simply does not sustain the approach. Kesey and Wasserman drew a Nurse Ratched who would require unanimous votes on ward policy when one of the voters is catatonic, who would drive Billy Bibbit to suicidal despair, and no reading of the script really allows for the benign mindset Boudreau seeks. However, she emanates a passive-aggressive, sterile malice that pushes all of the right buttons. In stark contrast to Nurse Ratched’s sterility is prostitute Candy Star (Ashli Zijdemans), whose overt sexuality and effusive enthusiasm bring astonishing vitality to the ward whenever she appears.

The set, lighting, and sound combine to evoke an eerily institutional feel that provides the perfect background for the show’s action. The near-capacity audience (at a Sunday matinee!) was clearly as impressed as we were with the entire production. Caution – this is not a show for children or the faint at heart – both the language and themes require a mature sensibility!

 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest plays at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove through March 10th.

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