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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Delightfully Disturbing

Ken Kesey’s famous book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962, at the dawn of the Hippie movement and at the height of the Civil Rights movement. A year later, in 1963, Dale Wasserman published a stage adaptation of the novel, and in 1975 the famous film version was released. Now, SF Playhouse stages its own production of this mesmerizing story, bringing back to the forefront the dangerous side of industrialization and technology.

The captivating tale of a man whose rebellion against the relentlessly crushing force of modern society garnered him nothing but defeat, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest traces the decline of Randall Patrick McMurphy as he faces off against the cold, calculating Nurse Ratched in an attempt to save the souls of his fellow patients. Filled with some of the most compelling characters and sublime figurative language in American literature, Kesey’s novel packs subtle symbolism and powerful insight into a carefully woven tale.

The novel is a contemporary classic. The original production of the stage play starred Kirk Douglas. The 1974 film version scored five Academy Awards. What, then, can one reasonably expect from SF Playhouse’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which necessarily must lack some of the narrative detail of the novel and the cinematographic advantages of film? A lot. And that is exactly what audiences get.

One of the greatest challenges faced by any adaptation of Kesey’s novel is how to capture its unique point of view. The novel is told from the first-person point of view of "Chief" Bromden, a paranoid schizophrenic, whose account of events on the ward are continually intermixed with his hallucinatory ramblings, often causing confusion in the novel. However, his account, with its rich imagery of machinery, somehow gets at the heart of the situation much more effectively than a straightforward account of the “actual” events.

How does one present this idea, so central to the novel, on stage without running the risk of being unintelligible, or worse, corny? This is managed beautifully in the production by presenting the Chief’s ramblings through periodic monologues which yet comment obliquely upon the action (much like an ancient Greek chorus). This format successfully combines the action with the import of the Chief’s observations without overly confusing the audience. The addition of creative lighting and the deep thrumming of heavy machinery underscore the hallucinatory quality of Chief Bromden’s observations but also their profound insight.

Another difficulty faced in adapting the novel is how to effectively convey the enormous amount of symbolism that pervades the story and that gives deeper meaning to the seemingly light-hearted events. Again, SF Playhouse delivers. Wasserman has maintained in his script many of the most important lines and references that give the story substance, such as Christ and machine imagery, and references to emasculation. SF Playhouse’s production has further enhanced this with its set, lighting, and costume choices.

The stage merely represents a white, sterile hospital ward, empty, quiet, with a glassed-in nurse’s station looming over the room like a sentry tower. The patients on the ward wear plain grey hospital scrubs, while the staff wear starched white uniforms. Nurse Ratched often dons a severe black sweater over her glaringly white dress. The only color is the bright red “Stop” placard on the locked ward door and the green of the enormous trees outside the window.

Simple, yet extremely effective. The freedom of nature. The Nurse’s highly polarized view of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The drive of modern industrialized society to wash away all color and individuality, offering grave repercussions to those who resist. The false sense of normalcy, security, and happiness that covers over an increasingly dire and violent struggle. All of these directorial choices contribute to an understanding of the action as an allegory for something much more profound and urgent than just a personal rivalry.

The disappointments of this production were few, with many occurring towards the end and as a result of Wasserman’s script rather than the acting or directing. Some extremely worn lines appear as the action moves towards its close, a phenomenon made even more disappointing after Wasserman’s skillful treatment of the original story’s symbolism.

In addition, while most of the acting was superb (particularly that of Joe Madero as Ruckley, who, though he had very few lines, continually and impressively maintained his character in entertaining ways), Hansford Prince seemed to really only capture the rowdy aspects of McMurphy, leaving the more subtle aspects of the character to drown in his enthusiasm.

Though often hysterically funny, the encounters between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched slowly increase the tension, ratching it up a notch, higher and higher, until it finally breaks in a series of irrevocable actions. Rambunctious and spirited while at the same time deadly serious, this play is overall a great production and well worth seeing -- whether you’ve read the book or not.

At the SF Playhouse
Runs through September 5th
Tickets: $40