One of the greatest challenges facing an actor is to try to create their own unique interpretation of a classic role such as Randle P. McMurphy or Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The roles made famous by a young Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher won Academy Awards for both for their respective turns as the charismatic delinquent and the sadistic autocratic nurse in the 1975 movie. Mark A. Rhea and Sheri S. Herren are given the challenge here, and they are both standouts.
Randle P. McMurphy (Mark A. Rhea) is a malcontent on a 5-month sentence who arrives at a mental institution apparently trying to find an easier term than the prison farm. He is sent to a ward run by the calmly domineering Nurse Ratched (Sheri S. Herren) who controls her patients with a sedated combination of emotional manipulation, humiliation and punishment. There is immediate friction between the two antagonists as they fight for dominance over the broken residents of the ward (Kevin Adams, Mike Kozemchak, Joe Baker, David Jourdan, Rich Montgomery, and Colin Smith). McMurphy slowly revives some self-esteem and spirit in his fellow patients much to Ratched’s consternation. The battle between the two reaches its peak when McMurphy manages to sneak two girls with liquor onto the ward floor at night and throws a party. During the party, young Billy Bibbit (Joe Baker) is induced to entertain Candy Starr (Melissa Hmelnicky) privately in the Seclusion room. The party is discovered and Billy Bibbit is once again intimidated by Nurse Ratched for his part in the activities — with disastrous results. Nurse Ratched then exacts her vengeance on McMurphy.
The success of this play hinges upon the audience’s rooting for McMurphy, having distaste for Nurse Ratched and compassion for the inmates. Mark A. Rhea is magnetic as the rogue McMurphy. Although he looks somewhat like a young Jack Nicholson, he has a charm all his own and brings energy to each scene. Sheri S. Herren, on the other hand, chills the air each time she shows her stiff lipped smile in the ward. The tension between these two each time they share the stage is electrifying.
A few more stand-out performances: Joe Baker playing young Billy Bibbit and Kevin Adams playing the towering Chief “Broom” Bromden. Baker warms the heart as the shy, reserved, stuttering lad befriended by McMurphy who slowly grows under the attention. The caterpillar turns into a butterfly at the party and manages to shake his stutter until Nurse Ratched tortures him psychologically and the audience is horrified to see the young man regress back to the start.
Adams plays the enigmatic Indian deaf-mute who only speaks in cryptic theatrical asides. McMurphy draws the apparent deaf-mute out of his shell and induces him to return to the real world. And his bond with McMurphy accentuates the climax to the production. One additional kudo goes to Colin Smith who plays the catatonic Ruckly. Smith fills his body language and facial expression with small sparks for anyone who happens to be looking his way to remind everyone of the institution surrounding the play.
The show is a challenging one to mount, but the production staff provide strong support for the on-stage performers. Director Susan Marie Rhea creates a realistic institution and keeps the show moving well. The pacing waxes and wanes well to hold the audience attention and the blocking makes good use of the space. Set designer, George Lucas creates a cold, grey institution with its linoleum floors, stark colors and spare furnishings. Dan Martin’s light design and Tony Angelini’s sound design help convey appropriate atmosphere throughout such as the twilight zone effect for the Chief’s soliloquies.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
by Dale Wasserman
based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by Susan Marie Rhea
Produced by The Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Ted Ying
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