Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was born from his experiences as a night orderly in a mental health facility. One year after it was published, Dale Wasserman adapted it into a play, which had a Broadway run with Kirk Douglas as the main character, Randle P. McMurphy. The 1975 film version nabbed all five major categories at the Academy Awards, including best acting honors for Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher in two plum roles most actors covet.
North Fork Community Theatre is currently offering a must-see production of this piece. The book, play and film were all experienced during a period in our history noted for rebellion and change. The story examines authority and the various means by which it was wielded. But as noted by director Bob Kaplan, “Concerns about ‘power and control’ have not gone away.” This classic play is still very much relevant.
McMurphy opts to fake insanity rather than serve a prison sentence for battery and gambling, assuming it will be an easier ride. A good-natured but habitual troublemaker, McMurphy launches upon his arrival the plot’s primary power struggle with Nurse Ratched, a cold iron maiden of a head nurse.
Mr. Kaplan and producer Deanna Andes have done an excellent job casting this challenging, provocative and entertaining production. Each and every actor on stage appear fully committed and in the moment — there was not a weak link among them. When this happens, it is either incredibly good luck in casting or the skillful guidance of the director. Most often, it is thanks to a combination of both.
On opening night, Mr. Kaplan stood in for one of his actors, who was ill. He took on the role of Harding, to which I hear local favorite Rusty Kransky will return this weekend. I was disappointed to miss him in this role, but Mr. Kaplan slipped into the shoes of the “president” of the ward without missing a step.
As Billy Bibbit, the timid, stuttering boy dominated by his mother and bullied by Ratched, Peter Peterson creates a touching innocence and physicality that is heart-breaking. He truly inhabits his character’s mind and body. As does Matt Orr as Scanlon, the maniacal would-be bomber. Orr mesmerizes, as he radiates jolly madness.
Cheswick is a boisterous but spineless patient who appears to find a kindred soul in McMurphy when it comes to wanting changes in the ward’s daily routines, though he gleefully follows McMurphy in pursuit of them. Derek Hoffman’s Cheswick strikes the perfect balance between irritating and sympathetic. John Hudson is hilarious as Martini, who suffers from hallucinations. During a particularly funny scene, the men are playing basketball, using the “chronic” Ruckley (the perfectly catatonic Ken Rowland, who spends most of his time leaning against the wall) as the hoop, and Martini passes the ball to the empty air.
Chief Bromden, a large Native American thought to be mute and deaf, reveals in monologues throughout the play his perspective on the authorities who seek to control them. Though not the giant the role calls for, Wade Karlin is certainly tall enough, and he silently exudes the chief’s latent strength and relays his wisdom deftly. His final scene with McMurphy is haunting and moving.
The plum female role of the play, head nurse Ratched, was played with evil iciness by Rebecca Edana. Ratched is a woman who not only has near total control over all, patients and worker bees alike, but who needs that control so desperately that in order to hold onto it she is willing to literally destroy a life. Ms. Edana gives a nuanced performance and provides the perfect authoritative foil to McMurphy’s free spirit.
Without a strong McMurphy, this play cannot stand up. Fortunately, there are no worries here. Alan Stewart, while staying true to the essence of the rebellious inmate, puts his own stamp on the role. His performance is all swagger and bluster, with subtle layers of compassion and empathy. He is our “eyes” into this world, and Mr. Stewart reels us in from his first entrance.
The rest of the cast are equally strong: Robert Wesson and Laura Pace as aides, Lena Trbojevic as Nurse Flinn, Jim Pearsall as Dr. Spivey, Tara O’Shea as Candy, Jennifer Eager as Sandy and Jose Coropuna as the technician.
The excellent set was designed with attention to minute detail, helping create a believable asylum, as did the costumes by Ms. Andes and the lighting design.
This is a production you will not want to miss, especially if you like quality entertainment that pokes at your mind and your heart.
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’
North Fork Community Theatre
12700 Old Sound Ave., Mattituck
Performances continue March 21, 22, 23, 28, 29 and 30. Curtain time: Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m.
For tickets, call 298-NFCT (6328) or visit nfct.com.