One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Poor Nurse Ratched. She’s one of the great villains in theater and film history, but she never gets mentioned alongside Darth Vader or Richard III.

And poor Nurse Ratched! She had a firm grip on her little flock of crazies until that damned Randle P. McMurphy showed up in the psychiatric ward and started undermining her authority.

But don’t cry for Nurse Ratched. In the Pioneer Theatre Company production of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” she is played with a monstrous chill by Alison Edwards. Her hair is pulled back, her lips are tight, she speaks with stern precision — and she is pure villain. Dale Wasserman’s script, John Going’s direction and Edwards’ performance never allow us to feel anything other than hatred for her. It may not be realistic — real people tend to have SOME shades of gray — but it sure is cathartic to despise a character without having to worry about understanding where she’s coming from or sympathizing with her.

Nurse Ratched is not the central figure, of course; that’s McMurphy, a leering, coarse man played by R. Ward Duffy with just enough hint of Jack Nicholson to remind us who owns the role. McMurphy is transferred from the work farm to the psychiatric hospital, where he decides that if he’s going to be dubbed a psychopath, he’s going to be the “stomp-down, doggone biggest one of all!”

Soon he has won the support of nearly every other man in the ward, most of whom had never thought to challenge Nurse Ratched or think for themselves before. Next thing you know, they are betting on whether McMurphy can “break” her. Tragically, she may hold all the cards after all.

Jason Bowcutt plays Billy Bibbit, the sweet, stuttering virgin, with warmth; he is accompanied by PTC favorite Max Robinson as Dale Harding, the previous leader of the group who is as funny as he is touching. There is a fine line between being funny-crazy and believable-crazy, and these actors and their compatriots manage to be both.

The play is told through the eyes of Chief Bromden, an American Indian played by Michael Nichols, who recently played the role on Broadway. Nichols is extremely tall and imposing, but gentle in the role.

Michael Heintzman is a little too ridiculous as the spineless Dr. Spivey, and his less-than-stellar performance stands out all the more next to all the great ones.

The play is not terribly different from the Oscar-winning movie, but having seen the film is no excuse to skip the play. The final harrowing moments, when seen live, are incomparable.

Should you go? Yes, if you want a mature, finely-acted dose of theater.

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