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The Justice Theatre Project has chosen theatre in the round to present their production of Dale Wasserman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The concept works well, as it seems to indicate that, while these denizens of a mental institution struggle through their lives, we, as The Norm, press in on them from all sides. It is a sobering realization that during this time period when electroshock therapy and lobotomies were not only allowed, but also seen as true therapy, we as the outsiders were giving our unspoken consent to such treatments.
Cuckoo’s Nest opens JTP’s 2013-14 season and begins the theme for the season of “We Are One Body,” reiterating that we as onlookers are a part and parcel of what goes on in the Day Room at this nameless mental institution. While we find mirth and laughter, in the beginning, at the battle drawn between R. P. McMurphy (Mike Raab) and Nurse Ratched (Renee Wimberley), we must also acknowledge that this seemingly humorous battle has very real consequences.
Cuckoo’s Nest depicts the day-to-day lives of several “volunteer” inmates of this mental institution. But when a volatile and rebellious “committed” individual is dropped into their midst, these seemingly docile inmates slowly begin to learn what it means to be individuals. That this volatile individual is placed with them at all is the Institution’s first mistake. But even though it seems that Nurse Ratched and the Institution win this conflict, the members of this Day Room will never be the same. It is the idea of “what happens next” that we are left with, at the show’s close, that will decide how these souls will survive.
At the beginning of the show we meet the men of the Day Room, as they assemble for their medication: Billy Bibbitt (Joey Narvaez) has attempted suicide; his wrists are still bandaged. Martini (Victor Rivera) is seemingly aware, but suffers from hallucinations. Scanlon (David Hudson) deals with his anger issues by building a “bomb” with which he expects to blow up the Institution. Harding (Jack Prather), seemingly the sanest, has been elected president of the group and spokesperson for all those within the Day Room. Cheswick (Rock Kershaw), who seems docile enough for the most part, is given to sudden bursts of anger, and it is explained to McMurphy by Harding that Cheswick was once a violent man. Finally, Chief Bromden (Clark a.k.a. Cimarron Aflague), a true American Indian, and a giant of a man, is reduced in stature by the fall of his father as leader of his tribe.
The inmates are watched over by aides and nurses, none of whom seems to have an affinity for their plight: Dr. Spivey (Barbara diCiero) is clearly afraid of Nurse Ratched and her power. Aide Williams (Sidney Edwards) shows true contempt for the underlings she oversees. Nurse Flynn (Lorelei Mellon) is afraid of the entire bunch. Aide Warren (TJ Swann) is another giant of a man who keeps the inmates in line by sheer intimidation. Aide Turkle (Verlene Oates), the night aide, is given to strong drink, even, or more correctly especially, on the job.
When McMurphy is dropped unceremoniously into this mix, the resulting solution becomes volatile. The seemingly irresistible force of McMurphy is met by the immovable object that is Ratched. The result is destruction and damage to both parts. But, what’s more, everything has changed; neither the inmates of the Day Room, nor the Institution under which they live, will ever be the same.
Jeremy Fiebig directs this show with a true eye for the nuance, allowing each character to build on his own foundation, while bringing together the ensemble so that the inmates react as a group. The Institution also reacts as a whole, rather than as individuals. The cast brings together an explosive conclusion with skill and determination; it is left to us, as observers of this cataclysmic chain reaction, to realize the horrors of what was supposed to be a benevolent home for those afflicted with mental illness.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest brings under a microscope the past destructive forms of “medicine” that afflicted members of what was supposed to be “healing.” As such, it is a devastating indictment, and a cautionary tale to all those who believe in the true supremacy of the individual. The Justice Theatre Project recreates Cuckoo’s Nest with precision and acute detail, revealing both sides in this fight as terribly flawed adversaries. For those of us who would believe that the mentally ill deserve compassion and justice, it is a true wake-up call.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest continues through Sunday, September 22. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.