As it does every year, Keegan Theatre toured Ireland last fall with a play from the contemporary American canon. This last time it was playwright Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which it’s brought home to roost at Church Street.
Wasserman, who died in December, adapted Cuckoo’s Nest back in 1963, just one year after Kesey published his novel. It’s a different beast from Milos Foreman’s 1975 film, hewing even closer to the clean, simple allegorical lines of Kesey’s plot.
Too clean, too simple, too allegorical? Maybe a bit—there certainly isn’t much nuance to the script, and Susan Marie Rhea’s direction seems hell-bent on buttressing Wasserman’s downright Manichean setup:
Enter the two-fisted, anarchic troublemaker McMurphy (Mark Rhea, all hearty guffaws and back-slapping brio). Watch him vie for control of the mental ward with coolly manipulative Nurse Ratched (Sheri S. Herren). Watch Authority quash Individuality, Order trump Chaos. It’s certainly a tale worth telling, even if its purpose is merely to provide an opportunity to cheer the hero and hiss the villain.
But Wasserman’s script has loftier ambitions, and it forces many—too many— writerly thoughts about the nature of freedom into halting monologues delivered by Kevin Adams’s putatively deaf and mute Native American giant. (If that first glimpse of Keegan regular Adams in a padded muscle suit and F-Troop-Injun wig elicits a reflexive snicker, hang in there. It doesn’t take long for the actor’s essential dignity to kick in and help save it.)
The plot’s essentially a Ratched-ing up of tension, as Rhea continues to goad Herrin’s icy Nurse while his fellow patients fall under his sway. (Joe Baker and Mike Kozemchak notably lend their characters a roundedness that helps keep them from reverting to type.)
But Rhea and Herrin never connect; it’s as if they’re pitching their performances past one another. The needed sparks don’t fly, the requisite tension never manifests, and this Cuckoo’s Nest ends up a disappointingly safe and tidy place to spend a couple hours.