"Nest" a Powerful Production

By Geary Danihy

Check your calendar – or whatever electronic device you are now using to plan your life – and find some time to get out to the Ivoryton Playhouse to take in the venue’s final production of the season, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” You’ll have a lot to talk about on the drive home, for this is gripping theater created by an exceptionally strong cast under the perceptive, creative direction of Peter Lockyer.

The play, an adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel by Dale Wasserman, deals with the nature of brute authority and the price one pays if it is challenged. It is also a play about lost and rediscovered dignity and the commitment one must make if one wishes to be a functioning member of the human race.

The novel has been assigned to generations of students, so you’re probably familiar with the plot. As a reminder, we have a psycho ward ruled by Nurse Ratched (Andrea Maulella) invaded by Randall Patrick McMurphy (Daniel Robert Sullivan), an earthy iconoclast who has chosen to fake symptoms of insanity to gain freedom from a work gang he was sentenced to.
Like two cats defending their turf, McMurphy and Ratched immediately confront each other, and it doesn’t take long for them to understand that this turf fight is really about who will control the hearts – and souls – of the other patients on the ward. Battle lines drawn, the contest focuses on Chief Bromden (Solomon Landerman), an apparently catatonic Indian of substantial stature who believes he is too small to face life, and Billy Bibbit (Jonathan Fielding), a stuttering sacrifice to smothering “mother love.”

Wasserman’s adaptation cuts a lot from the novel but maintains the essential plot line, with a sufficient number of original characters present to capture the quirky and, yes, sexist nature of Kesey’s work, and Lockyer’s direction, save for a few false moments, revels in the chaos McMurphy brings to the ward and the tension inherent in the conflict between faux patient and castrating nurse. 

As noted above, the production is blessed with a very strong cast, and Lockyer gets the best from all of them, save for Maulella, whose work in the Westport Country Playhouse’s production of “Tryst” and Ivoryton’s “The Miracle Worker” I greatly admired.

As an audience member it’s always difficult to know who is responsible for certain decisions that go into the final staging of a play, but having Nurse Ratched cut right and left turns like a drill sergeant as she moves about the ward is turning this frustrated, frightening creature into something of an automaton, and the decision to have the actress deliver a significant number of lines directly to the audience distills the tension between her and the patients.

The first instance of this face-forward staging is effective, for Maulella’s lancet-like stare includes the audience as members of the ward she rules, but the point is made and shouldn’t be beaten to death, especially since when Maulella addresses the audience she does so wide-eyed, suggesting that she is either envisioning a world where all her rules are adhered to or she is on some of the medications administered to the patients. When the actress’s attention is allowed to focus on what is happening on the stage – on the patients -- she is a powerhouse, no more so than in the final scene with McMurphy.

Sullivan’s McMurphy is just about letter-perfect. He gives us a man who is a primal force, constantly on the move, a con-artist fighting against his inherent humanity, a reluctant hero who slowly comes to realize what he is being called upon to do to save his fellow patients from Nurse Ratched’s tyranny. He essentially fails with Billy Bibbit, but succeeds gloriously with the Chief, who was the novel’s narrator.

Landerman’s Chief is a palpable presence throughout the play, a tortured man who eventually breaks free from the shackles that have bound his soul, and Fielding is exceptionally effective as the mother-haunted boy who cannot come to grips with his own sexuality. Also of note is Neal Mayer’s portrayal of the well-educated yet sexually frustrated Dale Harding – he gives us an acerbic yet fragile human being overwhelmed by all that is implied, and threatened, by the size of his wife’s breasts.

This is a complete production, by which I mean that, by and large, actors, director, scenic designer Daniel Nischan, lighting designer Doug Harry and projection designer Tiffany Hopkins are all on the same page, their efforts yielding a riveting two hours of theater that culminates in a visually satisfying epiphany.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” runs through Sunday, Nov. 21. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.  

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