Monday, February 15, 2016

'Whatever gate you're granted': Cardinal Stage's vivid, heartrending production of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'

Unaccustomed as I am to reviewing only half a play, the second act of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" impressed me so much Sunday evening that I'll gladly come to terms with the bleeding chunk that was handed my wife and me — through no fault of either Cardinal Stage or us.

McMurphy and Chief Bromden do the old folk rhyme that supplies the title.
Allowing for bad weather wasn't able to go so far as to allow for somebody else's accident on the way down to Bloomington. Late entrances place latecomers squarely onstage, I'd been warned, so we stood in the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center's third-floor hallway through most of Act 1.

An invitation to sneak in behind the actor playing Randle P. McMurphy about 20 minutes before intermission was momentarily tempting. But though I love theater, coming under the seated audience's gaze like new admissions to the mental-health facility of Ken Kesey's imagination was a deal-breaker on several counts. I declined Mike Price's kind offer, which might have had a trace of impishness behind it.

Dale Wasserman's adaptation of Kesey's novel, a cultural benchmark of the 1960s, is both tender and searing. Directed by Randy White, this production ranges over Mark Smith's well-appointed, blandly institutional set with gusto. Glad to stay seated throughout intermission, we had plenty of time to take in the set's features, angular and modern, under bright lights connoting both the pretense of healing and actuality of strict control, while recorded entr'acte music brought back the decade's ambiance.

I'm trying not to sound snobbish in bringing forward the pertinent fact that I had not heard such songs as "White Rabbit" (Jefferson Airplane), "Tales of Brave Ulysses" (Cream), and "Get Off of My Cloud" (Rolling Stones) since they were new, before there was a "classic rock" bin to dump them in. Sometimes turning away from the pop culture of your youth can be rewarding; in this case, hearing these songs decades later made seeing the stage version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" especially exciting and fresh for me. It helped imprint the story of the gambler, scamp and trickster McMurphy and his fellow patients on the nerve-ends, where it belongs. It seemed to carry this reminder, also from a period song: "When the music's over, turn out the lights." Absolutely.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is not a period piece, but it inhales deeply the atmosphere of its decade. Kesey was born 10 years to the day before I was. Elvis was in his birth cohort. Martin Luther King Jr. was six years older, and Ornette Coleman was born a year after him. Jerry Rubin was three years Kesey's junior, John Lennon younger by five years. These men and many others shaped my generation's early maturity.

Kesey's novel, prefaced by the author's "Sketches" in the edition I own, includes this telling sentence: "You get your visions through whatever gate you're granted."  Who does the granting was at issue then more than ever. It was an era when many of us suspected that we would not be allowed to find out who we were. Sure, it was paranoia, but it was our own. The choice of gates through which we might get visions often seemed destructive or just too narrow. Maybe the best path was supposed to be the one without visions.

The atmosphere of control that threatened to make our relative material prosperity meaningless is encapsulated in the facility where the novel's narrator is confined. He is a Native American known as Chief Bromden who pursues his tattered visions amid a group of voluntary and involuntary refugees from the larger world.

Kesey's choice to make the apparently mute Chief the novel's articulate first-person narrator is
Nurse Ratched (Constance Macy): Her disapproval can be lethal
moving, but more than a little troubling aesthetically. I won't go into that here, but I will say the stage version puts all the patients' stories on a different level of heartbreak. It evens out the collective struggle against the rule of Nurse Ratched, played with steely severity (eventually almost unhinged) by Constance Macy. To be mean in this role is not enough; a more deep-delving rigor suggesting how formidable guardians of social order can be is a quality she also commanded. A frown from Ratched has to be as effective as a riding crop, in part because it's backed up by more painful weaponry.

I'm sorry I missed how well this regime — and the patients' individual strategies to cope with it — was established in the first act, but I'm betting it was as sensitively handled as it proved to be in the second. The freedom with which the actors established the threatened individuality of each of the patients was almost uplifting. As Chief Bromden, Jeremy Proulx's performance had the wounded stature it needs; he was indeed as big as McMurphy encourages his character to be.

The gang plans a party, which will turn out to be McMurphy's undoing.
The Chief's interaction with Price's McMurphy amounted to a fraternal bond twisted by the system into a Cain-Abel tragedy. McMurphy is both genuinely compassionate and self-centeredly crafty as Price plays him — a galvanic force throughout the second act, which opens with an off-the-rulebook basketball game that's exuberantly staged, then quashed with vigor.

Chances are the Combine, the nebulous force of social control always alive in Bromden's mind, is still in charge, though in some disarray. Punitive approaches may be outmoded in mental health, but they have taken a computer-driven hold on education and the workplace. That's just part of what makes "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" worth staging in 2016.  Identity politics now promise an avenue of good visions for everyone, but lots of people seeking their own way still get stuffed into old pigeonholes.

That's why it was diverting for me to eavesdrop on a conversation between two younger men at intermission. Spurred by the music being played, they were talking about some of the old bands. Of the Rolling Stones, one of them said dismissively: "It's all about misogyny." The other replied: "Well, that was like part of the times then."

Good thing we don't have to worry about that anymore.

Kesey dedicated his novel "To Vik Lovell, who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs." Ladies and gentlemen, there is still room on the next tour. And "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" plays through Feb. 28.

[Photos by Blueline Media Productions]

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