So, you decide to bake a loaf of bread. You gather the best ingredients you can find, mix them all together, form the loaf and pop it in the oven. Unfortunately, you missed one ingredient, and that was yeast. Thus, the ingredients don’t interact the way they should and you end up with, well, matzah, something palatable but essentially flat and flavorless. Such is the case with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which just opened up at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. All the ingredients are there, save for the yeast – what gets all the ingredients interacting.
The play, based on Ken Kesey’s iconic 1962 novel, was adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman and later turned into a 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson. Set in an Oregon sanitarium, the play deals with the conflict between the individual, as personified by Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger) and the institution, as personified by Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell). The latter character’s name suggests “ratchet,” that is “a bar or wheel with a set of angled teeth,” a functioning part of a machine.
McMurphy is a rebel, a man who bridles when constrained by rules; Nurse Ratched thrives on rules. Hence the inherent conflict as McMurphy enters a ward where the “patients,” all males, have been cowed, brow beaten and essentially emasculated by Ratched. The Playhouse production, as directed by Ezra Barnes, captures this idea, but what is missing -- the yeast – is the psycho-sexual tension between McMurphy and Ratched. It’s just not there, and its omission basically emasculates the play.
Willinger and Randell, both admirable actors with impressive stage credits, simply don’t seem to connect on a kinetic level. Yes, they ably convey the idea of the battle between man and machine, but there should be something else going on, a love-hate relationship, if you will, that leads to the final confrontation when McMurphy attacks Ratched. Without this underlying tension the play is one-dimensional.
There’s also a lack of a sense of “triumph” in the final scene, when Chief Bromden (Santos), one of the inmates, finally breaks free and realizes he is big enough to again confront the world. It should be a signifying moment emphasizing humanity’s triumph over the machine, but in this production it doesn’t play that way – there are a few sparks, but their significance is probably lost on most of the audience. The play should end with a bang but, alas, it’s more of a whisper.
Running well over two hours, this production does feature some fine moments, chief among them Adam Kee’s portrayal of Dale Harding, one of the patients, the ostensible leader of the patients. Equally engaging is Santos’s take on the supposedly mute Chief Bromden and Alex Rafala as the sexually repressed, mother-dominated Billy Bibbitt. But it all comes down to what’s going on between McMurphy and Ratched, and here one might question director Barnes’ hand in all of this. One never really knows what went on in rehearsals, what notes or suggestions the director might have given, but there’s a sense that Barnes either disregarded or missed the essence of the “yeast” that would make “Cuckoo’s Nest” rise to become gripping drama.
A case in point. Near the end of the second act, McMurphy has orchestrated a “party” that involves bringing two prostitutes into the ward and fueling the evening with a concoction of alcohol and medications. One of his goals is to, well, get Billy laid. The ensuing ruckus draws the staff’s attention, including the appearance of Nurse Ratched, who, once she realizes what Billy has been up to, proceeds to send him on a guilt-trip that leads to his suicide, but Ratched’s attack is also about her own sexual frustrations vis-à-vis McMurphy, who, from the start, has confronted her super ego with an indomitable id. The scene, as staged by Barnes, seems to miss the underlying point, and thus lacks the gravitas and depth it should have.
The Playhouse’s production of “Cuckoo’s Nest” presents the Kesey story-line but doesn’t seem to wish to grapple with the underlying tensions that motivate the main characters. Yes, McMurphy is an idiosyncratic rebel and Ratched is the essence of systematic conformity, we get that, but there should be something else going on. As antagonistic as McMurphy and Ratched are, they should be the yin and yang of a dynamic that can lead to a fulfilling relationship or mutual destruction. Rathched’s final moment with a lobotomized McMurphy should embrace both her victory over him and her sublimated desire. It doesn’t.
“Cuckoo’s Nest” runs through November 18. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org