South Bend Civic Theatre opened its production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Friday evening in the Warner Studio Theatre. Before the lights dimmed on the first performance, the entire run had been sold out.
Enough to say that those ticket holders will indeed get their money’s worth. The 1963 Dale Wasserman adaptation Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, definitely not a hit in its Broadway debut, has become something of a cult classic due in no small way to the 1975 film version, definitely a hit even though it is based on the novel, not on the play.
Jack Nicholson’s riveting star turn as convict-turned-mental- patient Randle P. McMurphy was only one of the five major Oscars earned by the film. No less riveting was Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, the antithesis of Florence Nightingale, whose character name has become synonymous with rigid control in many areas.
Living up to these seminal interpretations definitely can be challenging, but the SBCT players all give it their best shots.
Under the direction of Terry Farren, in a space designed by Jaycee Rohlck to surround audience and actors in a locked ward, the patients present sympathetic portraits of living on (and off) the edges of reality.
Each maintains his own aura of instability, including the “chronics,” who stay silent inside their own worlds and react only infrequently. The patients who inhabit the ward (and world) of Nurse Ratched (Melissa Gard) are individuals interacting in an atmosphere of forced reality from which they have not the strength to break free.
Into this constricted atmosphere bursts Randle Patrick McMurphy (Steven Cole), a petty criminal who sees short time in a mental ward as preferable to longer time in a penal institution. His effusive personality eventually affects everyone in the ward, mostly positively. The reaction of Ratched, however, who sees her rule slowly but surely undercut, inevitably results in a fatal end.
As everybody’s nightmare nurse, Gard has become the area’s theatrical go-to-gal for venomous females. Hiding a poisonous agenda behind a saccharine smile and a velvet voice, she manipulates her charges to achieve her own ends, no matter the cost in lives or emotional balance. She is a monstrous caregiver and the female you love to hate.
Cole’s cherubic curls and roguish smile are too good to be bad. His seemingly fearless acts benefiting his less-than-fearless ward-mates have just the right amount of irony, making them almost as sincere as they could be. He is, in the end, their reluctant savior. Cole relishes every minute and so does the audience.
Kevin Egelsky is Chief Bromden, a Native American whose silence equates with being deaf and dumb. His small soliloquies intensify the setting and the emotional atmosphere. He is a big man and I have to say I missed the deliberately violent extension of his final physical act.
Making up the ensemble of patients are Vincent Bilancio as Dale Harding, Benjamin Cass as Billy Bibbit, Bill Frascella as Scanlon, Phil Kwiecinski as Cheswick, Craig Kilgore as Martini and Aaron Bucha as Ruckly. Matt Allen, Clara Ross and David Smith are aides, Paul McDowell is a doctor, Lisa Blodgett is a nurse and Megan Corey and Joyce Dudley are ladies of the evening.
Even in the midst of their “insanity,” there is a question of who should be on the inside and who, on the out.
“ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST” plays through April 21. For ticket availability, call 234-1112.