Rebel Randle P. McMurphy accepts a commitment to a mental ward to avoid a sentence to a work farm. The charming ne’er-do-well quickly comes into conflict with Nurse Ratched, the dominating ruler of the ward. His victories over the cold-hearted nurse begin to breathe new life into the ward, but when he learns his stay in the institution can be extended indefinitely, his personal war with Ratched takes on dire stakes where it becomes clear only one of them will be left standing. This is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman and based off Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name. It is currently playing at Florence Community Theater.
I’ve always been a big admirer of this show, not only for the strong story and compelling characters, but for its themes of societal views on mental illness, what it means to really live life, the triumph of the underdog and the corruption of power, just to name a few. The themes and characters of this show are brought to vibrant life by a colorful, energetic and mighty cast that came out with all guns a blazing with some storytelling that does extreme justice to this tale.
Neal Herring provides some superlative direction for this piece. Doing double duty with set design, Herring stages the story in the unfriendly, starched white walls of the mental institution where the patients live a monotonous and controlled existence under the thumb of Nurse Ratched. Herring utilizes the space quite well as each patient carves out his own little nook in the ward. He’s also led his thespians to well-developed performances as all characters have their quirks and tics which wonderfully create this little slice of purgatory.
I applaud the ensemble for giving its all to the show. Each and every one remained involved in the story and had mannerisms and/or reactions that told me something about them which helped to build this little world. Some notable performances in the ensemble came from JJ Davis who seems to have had one shock treatment too many with his take on the hallucinating Martini and Jim Watson who gives a very empathetic performance as Dale Harding, the patient ward’s president who is wrestling with his own sexual identity.
Brian Henning gives quite a moving performance as Chief Bromden, the show’s narrator. Henning has a wonderful gift for pantomime and some of the most expressive eyes I’ve ever seen on a performer. His eyes often let me read his thoughts as Chief has buried his sense of identity so deeply that he rarely speaks (the narration is done via voiceover) and pretends to be deaf and dumb so he won’t have to react to anything around him. It’s a joy to watch Henning’s Chief slowly blossom to life under the encouragement of McMurphy and his antics and his emotional breakdown during the play’s resolution is one of the finest heartbreaking moments I’ve seen in Omaha theatre.
I can’t say enough good things about David Frolio’s performance as Randle P. McMurphy. It is a truly a nuanced, spellbinding interpretation and I foresee Frolio being in the running for some Best Actor prizes come awards season. Frolio is just a force of nature. He comes blowing into the asylum like a storm and is so animated and fun to watch. His McMurphy is truly a rebel. He cares little for rules and authority and loves to fight and f—k. But he also has a heart of gold as he truly befriends the patients and fights for them even when he’s causing trouble for his own amusement. Frolio carefully walks the line with McMurphy’s battles with Ratched as he expertly acts as the burr under her saddle while tempering his behavior so she is unable to counterattack with the resources at her disposal. Frolio steadily builds and builds the tension until his McMurphy is finally forced to take drastic action when a beloved comrade falls victim in the war between he and Ratched.
Shelly Gushard gets an awful lot right with her take on Nurse Ratched. Gushard’s Ratched is the god of this little world and woe betide any who thwart her commandments. She’s also clearly the yang to McMurphy’s yin, not just in personality, but physicality as she is clearly the stronger of the two which added to her aura of power.
I liked how controlled she was and never allowed Ratched to get overly emotional. With a look and a glare, Ratched is even able to cow and bend the asylum’s doctor to her steely will. I also enjoyed how she would take little moments to exert control over her emotions when McMurphy pushed her buttons. But I think she’s got the room to be even colder, downright frigid I dare say, which would well suit the machinelike Ratched who genuinely believes her routines and rules and morality will help cure the patients.
Tim Mantil gives an extremely moving performance as Billy Bibbit. Mantil nails Billy’s shy nature with his soft-spokenness and believable, naturalistic stuttering. He also brilliantly communicates Billy’s constant thoughts of suicide with his twitchy movements, distressed expressions and persistent touching of his bandaged wrists. He just needs to be a little careful with his voice as it sometimes went into too high a register which made Billy seem more childish instead of childlike.
Cecelia Sass and Syrian Black did a pretty good job with the costumes from the classic nurse’s outfits to the T-shirts and dark sweats of the patients to McMurphy’s leather jacket and trademark hat. I did think the costumes for McMurphy’s female friends could be a bit trashier as they seemed a little too elegantly garbed for the crowd he’d likely run with. Derek Kowal and Stuart Anderson provided some lovely sounds for the show with ducks quacking during a morning sunrise to the ominous sounds of electro shock therapy when McMurphy and Chief are dragged away for treatment after a brawl with the orderlies.
It is a story of a battle of wills and this cast takes you on the emotional roller coaster ride of this slugfest with a strong, measured hand. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You may even be in stunned silence at some moments. But you’ll definitely be hooked from beginning to end.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest runs at Florence Community Theater through Feb 23. Showtimes will be Fri-Sat at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets cost $12 ($10 for TAG members/60+/groups of 8 or more). For reservations, call 531-600-8634 or visit www.florencetheater.org. Due to some strong language and sensitive subject matter, this show is not recommended for children. Florence Community Theatre is located inside of Florence City Hall at 2864 State St in Omaha, NE.