I have to admit I was a little apprehensive when I heard the Ottawa Little Theatre was taking on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s popular novel. It can be tough to go up against the expectations audiences bring from reading a book or seeing a movie. It’s a taller order still when Jack Nicholson played your lead character. Then there’s the touchiness of portraying mental illness. There wasn’t any reason to fret. The Ottawa Little Theatre’s production of Cuckoo’s Nest is sure-handed, powerfully affecting theatre.
Cuckoo’s Nest tells the story of Randle P. McMurphy, a larger-than-life, mischievous rogue who fakes mental illness to get a break from the prison work farm. The idea is that the loony bin will be a comfy place to serve out the rest of his sentence. When he rolls into the acutes ward for the supposedly curable he’s out to shake things up and breathe some life into what has become a pretty hopeless place. What he doesn’t count on is a fierce battle of wills with Nurse Ratched who rules the ward with an iron fist. Even her superior, Dr. Spivey (Ian Fraser) is tragically ineffective in protecting the patients from her. Kesey wrote the story from his experiences working the graveyard shift at a veteran’s hospital which accounts for the authenticity and the incredible empathy written into it.
It’s an emotionally intense performance. One moment you’re laughing at another one of McMurphy’s crude jokes or tricks on Nurse Ratched and the next you’re on the edge of tears as the patients struggle against the mighty oppressive forces around them. Small victories count for a lot in the ward. Against the austerity even a glimmer of normalcy like watching the World Series feels like a great triumph. Kesey’s penchant for the absurd is a constant backdrop.
Playing McMurphy, Jon Payne is a force to be reckoned with. Though rough around the edges– large, loud and irreverent– he’s a buddy to everyone, with a big heart. While all the other patients suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, he is a voice to power, refusing to give in even when the stakes are high. On the other side of the ring, Linda Webster plays a chilling Nurse Ratched, prowling, scheming and manipulating her patients with such cruel precision. She brings a sinister primness to the role. It’s eerie to watch the patients follow her lead in tearing at each other in group therapy like “chickens at a peckin’ party.”
The real magic in this production is in the cast and crew’s impressive commitment. You can’t help but feel that everyone brought an all-in attitude to the stage. The cast embodied their characters so convincingly that when they came out to mingle with the audience after opening night it was hard to break the spell they’d cast and recognize them as actors.
The eight actors playing the patients give especially moving performances, imbuing their roles with an unsettling rawness. Their physicality in expressing the patients’ broken-ness is quite striking. J. Taylor Morris as Billy Bibbit, is a standout in this respect delivering some genuinely heart-wrenching breakdowns. Allan MacDonald also gives an emotionally charged performance as Dale Harding, a closeted homosexual tortured by shame. Young actor Kenneth Forbes gives us a stoic Chief Bromden possessed with a hidden power, like the dammed river of his ancestral home. Constantly moving, Christopher Torti is hard to miss as the high-strung Martini, the wild-eyed war vet besieged by hallucinations.
The technical elements are just as strong. Robin Riddihough’s set design aptly captures the aesthetic of both the era’s and the ward’s claustrophobia. It’s a sterile space, full of cold metal, bars and pipes done up in a retro two-tone of turquoise and cream. David Magladry’s lighting and Andrew Hamlin’s sound work hit above their weight in enhancing shifts in tone and the haunting quality of many scenes.
Unfortunately, bits of dialogue were lost here and there, especially in the voiceovers so that my friend wasn’t the only one whispering to ask about a line they didn’t catch. There were also a couple moments that were a touch rushed which given a little more room to breathe would have delivered more of a zinger. As it was though, there was no lack of emotional punch. Under Tom Taylor’s fine direction, each scene is shaped and teased for maximum payoff. The lights fell on most scenes to spontaneous applause, the kind you might hear in a jazz club after a particularly swingin’ solo. If you’re looking for a heavy hitting show that will make you think, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is the ticket.
Fair warning, there’s a fair bit of coarse language and some un-P.C. slang.