The 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest swept the Academy Awards — best picture, director, actor, actress, adapted screenplay. Almost 40 years on, Milos Forman's successful film remains a resonant pop-culture landmark, even if people sometimes forget exactly why. Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre's production — timed, perhaps not coincidentally, close to Easter — reminds us.
Like the movie, the play is based on Ken Kesey's 1962 novel. Dale Wasserman wrote the stage version, which MET revives here with a spirit that contends just fine with 35 mm recollections. Sharp dialogue and taut scenes are filled with humor, insight, sadness and symbolism — a lot of symbolism. Besides gender politics and self-realization, the story hinges on sin, sacrifice and salvation.
Under William Christie's direction, each actor in this cohesive ensemble does focused, fine-tuned work, with group actions arranged like notes in a score — one that Scott Cordes, as protagonist Randle McMurphy, forcefully conducts. It's a role perfectly suited to Cordes' talents. Bad boy McMurphy is an extrovert with a penchant for fighting and an urge for gambling. When he's sentenced to serve time, he thinks a mental hospital will be a piece of cake compared with the alternative, a work camp.
What he doesn't expect is Nurse Ratched, a cold, angry woman (brought to scary manifestation by Jan Chapman in an understated but powerful portrayal) who runs the ward. Everyone seems to fear her, including the aides (Kyle Dyck and Donovan Kidd), who torment and help restrain the men, but McMurphy isn't, at first. He bends rules and lives fully — the way he wants — but finally ratchets down his instincts, and even his better nature, to negotiate this war game. Cordes gives an absorbing performance, exuberant and sensitive, in a captivating and thoughtful show.
In Kesey's novel, the story is narrated by Chief Bromden, an American Indian patient who appears catatonic. He's a large and central figure in the play as well. His internal world comes forth in voice recordings as he's surrounded by darkness and bathed in light. The staging is dramatic, but Ari Bavel brings Chief to better, fuller fruition once his character comes out of his shell, which isn't cracked by this hospital's regimens.
It takes only his first group-therapy session for McMurphy to see Ratched's Machiavellian ploys at work. Even the ward's psychiatrist, Dr. Spivey (Timothy D. Ahlenius), hasn't the will to fight this woman, who seems to dictate counseling and treatments.
No one dares to take her on, except McMurphy, who develops compassion for his fellow inmates and can see that the psychotherapy is used more to subordinate than to heal. Ruckly (Tyler Miller) has been lobotomized and barely exists at all. Martini (Samn Wright) suffers from hallucinations. And the distinctive personalities and personal issues of Billy Bibbit (Dan Hillaker), Scanlon (Matt Leonard), Cheswick (Chris Roady), and the articulate and intelligent Harding (Alan Tilson) are uncovered in riveting, moving (and sometimes funny) scenes as the story unfolds in the hospital ward's day room.
The set, designed by Kidd, is painted an institutional pale-green. From the glass-enclosed nurses' station, Ratched and her assistant, Nurse Flinn (Kenzie West), reinforce their separation from the patients and keep watch. The large window to the outside world is locked, but it's through that window that the memories of Chief Bromden awaken.
Most of the men have committed themselves here. They're afraid — of women, of themselves, of life. Harding mentions the "burden of sanity." But the man who was committed by law takes care of them, and they of him. Consider committing yourself to seeing this play — you have a small window, through March 25, to peer into their world.