Nursing a Grudge: McMurtry has a problem with Authority.One Flew Over the Cuckoo?s Nest

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If there’s any shock value left among the drugs and the violence and the electroconvulsive punishments that litter One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s in how schematic Ken Kesey’s counterculture classic seems. Or can seem, I should say, at least when encountered through the filter of Dale Wasserman’s 1963 stage adaptation—which, no, was not the basis for Milos Forman’s 1975 film. I confess I’ve managed to miss the latter, but doesn’t it live in the pop-culture consciousness as kind of a landmark of anti-establishment scorn? Maybe not—and maybe the characters were always, even in print, just Shaw-style mouthpieces for Kesey’s arguments—but encountered for the first time, the population of that iconic psych ward seems little more than a set of haphazardly chosen stock figures. Nurse Ratched, rigid enforcer of rules and norms, might as well wear a sign that says “Establishment”; likewise let’s print up a nice “Free-thinking Nonconformist” label for Randle Patrick McMurphy, the loudmouth, life-loving convict who got himself committed in order to avoid hard labor on the prison farm. And “The Huddled Masses,” let’s say, is what we’ll stick on the half-dozen sad sacks for whose loyalties those two polar opposites compete; it really doesn’t get much more complicated than that. Good thing, then, that Jerry Whiddon’s cast is game. Matthew Detmer turns in a bratty, raunchy McMurphy who can see his defeat coming as the endgame approaches and keeps throwing himself against the bars nonetheless; if Kathryn Kelley shows a touch more uncertainty and vulnerability than you’d expect in a monster like Nurse Ratched, she eventually nails the equation at the character’s core—the one that says well-meaning plus unimaginative plus fearful can add up to genuine evil. Michael Nichols is warm and touchingly damaged as the sequoia-sized Native American whose rehabilitation is one of the story’s central concerns, and there’s plenty of hilariously specific tic-generating among the actors playing that gaggle of inmates—notably from Jefferson A. Russell, Hugh Nees, and the loose-limbed, chair-hopping Michael Vitaly Sazonov. And Daniel Conway’s set is a thing of splendidly depressing institutional atmosphere—so while I wouldn’t go looking for enlightenment among the head-cases in that Oregon asylum, there’s some reasonably tasty theatrics to be found among their number.