Strong Performances Anchor Tense CUCKOO’S NEST

In the LGB Productions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, director Beth Brody pulls audiences into the world of a horrific mental institution with no way out. It is a tense and terrifying battle-of-wills tale.

Randall P. McMurphy has managed to escape his last five months of hard labor at a prison work farm by getting himself declared unstable and transferred to a mental institution. Nurse Ratched, who maintains tyrannical control of those committed, voluntarily and involuntarily, has her suspicions about him. She quickly realizes he will undermine her authority, and McMurphy, a brash, perpetual bad boy type, doesn’t prove her wrong.

As McMurphy, Sean A. Brosnahan effectively projects a likable rogue image as he keenly assesses his surroundings. His eyes gleam when he sees the other residents playing cards, triggering his gambling instincts, and he soon becomes the group’s leader, staging a revolt so they can watch the world series on television. Brosnahan’s McMurphy is unpredictable, cagey smart, and rebellious.

But McMurphy’s charms haven’t encountered the rigid determination of a Nurse Ratched. Christine Rogers possesses a steely smile armed with a hard veneer coating her words as she enforces her rigid rules, and assures the residents are for their own good. While it is never entirely clear whether Nurse Ratched truly believes her discipline is therapeutic, or whether she just enjoys exercising control over these men, Rogers maintains a tight grip on the role, charging every encounter with Nurse Ratched’s indomitable force. This energy ramps up even more in her scenes with McMurphy, making their final confrontation explosive.

Much of the drama of the play is framed by the obscure poetic monologues delivered by Chief Bromden, an American Indian who has been institutionalized beyond anyone’s immediate memory. Scott Renz captures the surreal imaginings of the Chief as well as his catatonic diminished state with equal veracity. 

Until McMurphy’s arrival, residents followed the lead of Harding, a cynical erudite with a wit drier than a Bond martini. But beneath his biting sarcasm is great pain. Dustin Britt’s portrayal rises well above stereotypical sexual repression with raw vulnerability. From his hilarious turn as a mock reverend to his final heartbreak, Britt demonstrates the vast range of his talent as well as an astute understanding of his character.

The rest of the ensemble’s strong nuanced performances add to the production’s tightness. Shane de Leon’s tortured Billy Bibbit is moving as the stuttering virginal young man with mother issues. Tanner Lagasca’s Martini is a ball of energy as he interacts with others only he can see. Ryan Madanick’s Cheswick is marked by physical tics that never seem unrealistic. Gerald Rubin’s time on stage is limited, but his Ruckly serves as a sad reminder of outdated psychiatric treatment. And Michael Anderson’s Scanlon offers a reminder that those with dangerous obsessions also need attention.

It is also clear that the staff of this facility are as cowed by Nurse Ratched as its residents. The aides, Warren (David Holt) and Williams (Aaron Tyler Boles), chafe under her regimen and are often even cruel to the residents, but sometimes seem to function much like Shakespearean clowns to offer comedic relief. And yet they also serve to reinforce the power one person has gained over the lives of others.

Strong scenic design by Jeffrey Nugent of the mental institution’s day room helps the audience feel as contained as its residents. Lighting by David Petrone highlights shifts in time, and Michael Anderson’s sound elements add just the right accents. Kishara McKnight’s costuming differentiates the uniqueness of each character.

While the 1975 movie adaption with Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher has become part of pop culture, the play richly emphasizes the plight of these residents as much as the conflict between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. And despite the notable datedness of the treatment of mental illness, the production also serves as a reminder of the importance of providing access to better care.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest runs through September 18th at the Jewish Community Center in Durham. For more information visit the company’s Event Page.

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