Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has remained a mainstay of literature, and even more well-known is the Oscar-winning 1975 film directed by Milos Forman with its towering performances by Jack Nicholson as the anarchic mental patient R.P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as the fascistic Nurse Ratched. Often lost in the shuffle is the 1963 stage version by Dale Wasserman (Man of La Mancha), which hews closer to the novel but has mostly been overshadowed by the film version, aside from a Tony-winning revival starring Gary Sinise in 2001.
The Justice Theater Project's new production, directed by Jeremy Fiebig, won't change those circumstances, but it does make a case for the validity of the stage version, which pares down the story from Kesey's novel but retains more of its dialogue and imagery than the Forman film.
The most significant aspect of Kesey's novel retained in the play are the monologues by "Chief" Bromden (local leather artist and saxophonist Clark "Cimarron" Aflague) that relate the patients' plight to the society lost by his Native American ancestors. Aflague isn't the tall figure "Chief" is constantly described as by the other mental patients (a few are a head taller), but he conveys the haunted, almost kitten-like quality of a man made to feel small, a strong contrast to the life force that is McMurphy.
As McMurphy, Mike Raab chooses to read the role as an unapologetic good-ol'-boy prankster. Renée Wimberley plays Ratched as a frustrated maternal figure who encourages McMurphy to take his final opportunity to escape. Among the others, a standout is Jack Prather as the supercilious Harding, who combines wry humor with self-awareness and self-loathing.
The energy and characterization present in this production of Cuckoo's Nest makes a convincing case that the stage version deserves to stand alongside the book and the film.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Masterpiece theater."