The Morrison Theatre's unflinching production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starts the minute theatergoers enter the cozy town hall that serves as the community group's performing space. As Lawrence Welk-like tunes play in the background, the patients and staff of a state mental institution mill about in the hospital's dayroom. Like nearly all of the characters in Dale Wasserman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel, though, audience members gradually become aware that they can leave the building any time they want. Corridors on opposite sides of the playing area--and a double door located prominently in the center of one of the theater's exterior walls--lead to well-marked, unobstructed exits, which suggests that escaping the dreary confines wouldn't be all that difficult.
Unless, like most of the patients, you've been coerced into believing that obeying rules and regulations and adhering to routine are more important than life itself. In that case, watching the searing drama isn't the discomforting or obligatory exercise that one might expect. Rather than hammer the audience over the head with the horrors of mental illness (or worse, instruct the actors to take an in-your-face approach by interacting with theatergoers), director Rick Bernstein allows us to observe the goings-on almost as if we were casual visitors protected by imaginary two-way mirrors. Only near the end of the drama, when Randle Patrick McMurphy (El Armstrong) and Chief Bromden (Lance Allrunner) face the prospect of being committed to the institution for an indefinite period of time, does flight seem the only--and, oddly, the most excruciating--course to take.
Bernstein keeps things moving at a comfortable pace and smoothly handles the transitions between scenes--such as the highly stylized, starkly lit episodes in which the otherwise silent Bromden provides some intriguing commentary. The director also elicits several strong portrayals from his able ensemble. Leading the company is Armstrong, who delivers a taut portrait of the rebel McMurphy (a role that won an Oscar for Jack Nicholson in Milos Forman's 1975 movie). Although he could use a more obsessive need to work the system instead of merely toying with it, Armstrong's engaging, occasionally menacing portrayal propels the drama for much of the evening --especially during his scenes with the laconic Allrunner. Christian Mast delivers a heartrending portrait of Billy Bibbit, the stuttering, naive youth who's both wondrously liberated and unintentionally victimized by McMurphy's corrupting influence.
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As head manipulator and power player Nurse Ratched, veteran actress Annie Gavin finds her character's militaristic, near-robotic sense of control. Constantly twitching in the direction of any number of imaginary friends and perceived enemies, Ricardo Barrera is completely convincing as Anthony Martini, a hallucinating, giggling spastic. Ken Witt earns hearty laughter as Dale Harding, the faux-snobbish president of the patients' council, as does Michael Wilson, who seems all but harmless as the manic Frank Scanlon until we learn the real reasons underlying his character's madness. And Carrie Wyatt is appealing in her brief cameo role of Sandy, the fly-by-night floozy who winds up teaching Billy a few more lessons than he's able to handle. Together the actors manage to convey the tragic consequences of a form of psychic imprisonment that, whether it appears harmless or overpowering, always requires one's acceptance in order to be effective.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, presented by the Morrison Theatre through May 30 at the Morrison Town Hall, 110 Stone Street, Morrison, 303-697-0620.