A powerful American drama, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” has a 53-year history from its 1962 Ken Kesey novel’s inception to the 1963 Broadway premiere starring Kirk Douglas to the very memorable 1975 Jack Nicholson/Louise Fletcher film.
After Chicago’s Steppenwolf’s revival in April 2000, actors Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney took it all the way back to Broadway again resulting in a 2001 Tony Award for Best Play Revival.
And now, “Cuckoo” has flown back to the Woodstock Opera House. First presented in 2001, TownSquare Players has remounted the production for a second time, this time under the direction of Randall W. Knott with a capable 16-member cast.
Framed by Columbia River Tribe Chief Bromden’s introspective monologues, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” relates the battle of wits and wills between charismatic Randall P. McMurphy and Nurse Rached. McMurphy has contrived to serve a short six-month sentence in the state mental institution rather than the prison work farm, failing to realize six months in jail has a definite term end, whereas an institution does not. We root for McMurphy as he attempts to change the wards’ inhabitants from the rabbits inmate leader Dale Harding says they are: “The world belongs to the strong. The rabbit recognizes the strength of the wolf. All of us here are rabbits.”
We applaud McMurphy’s victories, from getting to watch the World Series in the afternoon to the clandestine midnight party with liquour and party girls (effervescently and comically played by scene stealers Nicolette Decicco and Jess Smith). All live in fear of the 3,000-volt “battery charger” of electroshock therapy described as a “combination of sleeping pill and electric chair torture.” And, too sadly, we learn McMurphy’s victories come at an alarming cost.
Rikki Lee Travolta’s McMurphy is roguish, spirited, raspy and a Southern-accented anti-hero. Travolta plays a tauntingly energetic antagonist to authority and a sweetly compassionate friend to the inmates.
Kate Curtin’s Nurse Rached is manipulative, vindictive, focused, fierce, calm and just as sterile as her white starched uniform. Travolta and Curtin are a well-matched strong pair from beginning to end in their enactment of psychological and emotional control.
Each of the inmates has their onstage quirks and moments. Michael HIllstrom, as Harding, showcases a subtle transition from spineless to brave, while Brendan Gaughan movingly captures all the insecurities and pathos of Billy Bibbit and his painful stuttering. Steve Sturm (Cheswick), Johnny Vuke (Scanlon) and Jim Pierce (Martini) are delightfully believable in their portrayals; Jake Seeyle might have very few lines, but his lobotomized Ruckley facilitates many of this production’s laughs. And David Gasior’s Chief Bromden is responsible for the poignancy of the play.
The production is further and consistently supported by Abebi Aba (Nurse Flynn), Robert Boyd (Turkle), Rob Cunningham (Dr. Spivey), Domenick Didiana (Warren) and Greg Waldyn (Williams).
On a stage as intimate as the Woodstock Opera House’s, the set designed by director Knott is functional and well utilized. It looks like a bleak sanitarium should. Sue Colwell’s costumes are exactly what you expect to see on these characters, and technical coordination and lighting by the mother-daughter team of Lisa and Jessica Dawson under the stage management of Dan Kreisman ensure the production’s two-hour flow.
Opening night did see some minor quibbles with sound/articulation and pacing issues and, for me, the missing element of the debilitating trauma and horror of electric shock therapy, but TownSquare Players has presented an audience engaging and moving production worth seeing.
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Currently serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.
“ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST”
WHEN: Through June 26
WHERE: Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St., Woodstock
COST & INFO: Presented by the TownSquare Players. Based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey, the production chronicles the journey of mental health patients at the mercy of a power-hungry nurse. Rated at least PG-13. Schedule: 8 p.m. June 24-25 and 3 p.m. June 26. Tickets: $13, $18, $23. Tickets and information: 815-338-5300 or www.woodstockoperahouse.com.