By Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.
“Wire blier, limber lock, three geese in a flock, one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest…O-U-T- spells out…goose swoops down and plucks you out!”
When McMurphy (Patrick Jordan), a felon with a wild streak, decides he’d rather finish out the rest of his sentence at a mental institution instead of a prison farm (read: labor camp), he pretends to be the bull goose looney of looney town, feigning mental illness to avoid the grueling work down on the farm in Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of the Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Unfortunately the career criminal hadn’t counted on battling against Nurse Ratched (Kim Parker Green), who hides an iron fist underneath her surgical glove. Ratched rules with intimidation, humiliation, and reverse psychology, and McMurphy’s obvious charms and colorful language have no effect against the militant martinet.
McMurphy quickly tests Ratched’s patience and assumes leadership of her patients. This island misfit toys includes the stuttering Bibbit (Nick Lehane), the fey Harding (Randy Kovitz), the irascible Cheswick (Mark Tierno), the psychotic Scanlon (Dave Mansueto), the hallucinatory Martini (Michael Lane Sullivan) and the monstrous Ruckly (John Gresh). Off in the corner, seemingly oblivious to the insanity around him stands a mountain of a man, Chief Bromden (Leandro Cano).
Bromden is said to be deaf and dumb, but he sees and hears things more acutely than the other inmates of the asylum. He waxes philosophical with poetic soliloquies about the “Black Machine,” or rather the institution itself. They are brutal orations filled with truth, or the truth as he sees it. According to Bromden,“There’s a lot of things that are true, even if they didn’t happen.”
Side note: The towering Native American has a quirky attribute; a penchant for Juicy Fruit gum.
The uncivil war between McMurphy and Ratched escalates when McMurphy wins Bromden to his side. The play hurtles ever forward to the inevitable and destructive climax. Foreknowledge of the movie or earlier productions notwithstanding, you will find no spoilers here. Let’s just say, one goose is plucked O-U-T and the other goose is… cooked.
McMurphy is frenzied, bold and brash, but he’s tempered by Bromden, who is thoughtful, powerful and quiet. The juxtaposition is very effective with leads Cano and Jordan. They are riveting on stage, together or alone. Both are charismatic in shockingly different ways (no pun intended).
Parker Green plays Ratched with a subtle undercurrent of roiling rage. It’s a softer, friendlier performance than the one that won Louise Fletcher an Academy Award in 1975, but make no mistake, this Ratched is just as merciless, just as malevolent.
The rest of the ensemble hands in some stellar performances, especially Lehane’s Bibbit. The stammering Bibbit is a Babbitt, who conforms to the nurse’s megalomaniacal rule, until McMurphy brings the boy out of his stuttering shell. Shout out to Gresh, who plays Ruckly with a Frankensteinian ferocity. Special mention to Wali Jamal, Erika Strasberg and Magan Yantko who loom large in small roles, in the play’s vernacular, “they are as big as damn mountains.”
Director Melissa Martin keeps the action kinetic and frenetic on the grim, glum ward floor, masterfully rendered by Scenic Designer Tony Ferrieri, complemented by Andrew Ostrowski’s moody lighting and David Bjornson’s creepy sound design.
Though it’s from the barebones productions crew, there’s nothing bare bones about it. It’s an all-star cast, with an exquisite set, immaculate lighting, lugubrious music and iridescent pyrotechnics, but don’t hold that against barebones productions. “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is crazy good.
“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Center, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, click here.