It took Subversive Theatre Collective a few years to present the Dale Wasserman stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s seminal novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
But, better late than never. The play has arrived at The Manny Fried Playhouse, brought there “unapologetically,” as Subversive’s Kurt Schneiderman is fond of saying.
“Cuckoo’s Nest” apparently grew out of the late Kesey’s drug use in the early 1960s - he reportedly snorted, smoked and sipped nearly every known and illegal substance back in the day - and his voluntary, government-sponsored “study” into psychoactive drug use, which involved a stint in a mental hospital. His stay inspired the unforgettable “Cuckoo” male characters - shuffling Scanlon; the frightened but bright Harding; the jumpy Cheswick; lobotomized Ruckly; hallucinating Martini; the giant Native American, Chief, the stuttering Billy Bibbit; and, of course, the wily, rebellious rogue, Randle P. McMurphy, who opted for institutional confinement over jail because he thought it would be “easier.” Harding’s theory about his fellow patients? “We’re ‘psycho-ceramics,’ he claimed, “the crack-pots of humanity.”
McMurphy is alternately amazed and appalled at his new friends - the “chronics and the acutes” - a pathetic, cowering group who flinch and timidly march to the demands and rules of the ward supervisor, the no-nonsense Nurse Ratched. “Mac” flaunts “ward policy” from the start, clashes with Ratched - he routinely and profanely mispronounces her name - and gradually, through bravado and brass, brings fun, spirit and laughter back to the day room. This is war and Mac soon has his sad platoon marching with him.
The closet sadist, Nurse Ratched, is no pushover. She threatens a trip to the shock shop for Mac or maybe days in a ward with the ominous destination label, “Disturbed.” When a party is arranged - one featuring a couple of fun-loving young ladies from Mac’s rowdy past - “Cuckoo’s Nest” hurdles toward a violent, no-win finish for all the residents, particularly Mac, young and vulnerable Billy and even the surly martinet, Ratched.
When the play opened on Broadway in the early 1960s, it had a modest run. Over the years, its revivals have fared much better. The same is true for this Subversive and its director and designer Michael Lodick’s work at the spruced-up Manny Fried Playhouse where there is a laudable set - a room, walls, doors; the company’s historically dollar-store, make-do look is gone. “Cuckoo’s superb cast can do their work here.
And what a cast it is. Director Lodick has collected one of the strongest ensembles on a Buffalo stage in many a year: Thomas LaChiusa, masterful as McMurphy; Diane DiBernardo, an icy Ratched; Elliot Fox, Connor Graham, Rick Lattimer, John Kennedy, Jack Agugliaro and J. Tim Raymond as residents Harding, Billy, Scanlon, Cheswick, Martini and Ruckly, respectively. Some say that “Cuckoo” is not just McMurphy’s or Ratched’s play, the role of Chief Bromden, the mostly silent giant who nevertheless adds poetic moments to the chaos, is also key. Victor Morales sees that it is.
Shakora HP, Bryan Figueroa, Rich Kraemer, Monica Morissy, Michael Breen, Jamie Nablo and Brooke Goergen complete the ensemble. Small stage, large cast, great work.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has had its 50th birthday. Some of the shock is gone and fortunately, treatment for mental illness has evolved away from certain therapies espoused by Nurse Ratched. The play’s age shows a little.
Yet, Michael Lodick, whose work improves with each directorial outing - able attention to detail here, allowing no exaggeration in roles that tempt actors to do so - has managed to keep the play potent. It’s another very impressive “Cuckoo” revival.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Comedy presented by Subversive Theatre Collective through Dec. 4 at Manny Fried Playhouse. Tickets are $25-$30 Info: 408- 0499.