Crazy on you

Sinclair Theatre presents “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

By Jacqui Theobald

Considering the prevailing sense of craziness that seems to have invaded these times, it may be that     Sinclair Theatre’s choice of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is just the right play to help us keep our perspectives clear.

The novel by Ken Kesey was written in 1962 and quickly became a play in 1963. It starred Kirk Douglas, a stud in his time, known now as the very old father of Michael Douglas.

The Sinclair production is the Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation from 1963. It is an ensemble production with a cast of 16.

Director Nelson Sheeley remembers first directing “Cuckoo” in the early ’70s. “It is a terrific piece of theatre,” he says. “I am struck again by the quality of this work, almost like a Greek tragedy.”

The story is about a petty criminal, Randle P. McMurphy (David Brandt) who somehow gets to choose serving a short sentence in a mental institution rather than going to prison. That seeming simplicity must have been legally questionable even then, but this a timeless fable—of sorts.

McMurphy proceeds to turn the ward upside down. Nurse Ratched (Bryana Bentley) manages everything and everybody with a steel will and a polished sense of emotional brutality that she sees as keeping order. All the other patients have interesting back-stories and behaviors that demonstrate their diagnoses. Sheeley was careful to invite a psychology professor to work with the student cast and help them understand what drives their characters, more about the psychoses and neuroses.

“Nurse Ratched” has become synonymous with out-of-control needs for power and management with excessive, unreasonable rules and a cold heart. “But,” Sheeley notes, “she is not actually on stage that much; yet, we always remember her. Presumably, the patients will get better. But they don’t under her.” Instead, their spirits are broken.

Both Ratched and McMurphy are wonderful roles, as are the inmates. The Sinclair cast also includes Antonio Davis as Chief Bromden, David Thomas as Billy Bibbit, Thomas Puckett as Cheswick, Jonathan Kelly as Martini, Spencer Boden as Frank Scanlon, Maximillian Santucci as Dr. Spivey, Tristan Rivera as Aide Warren, Greyson Calvert as Dale Harding, Rebecca Henry as Nurse Flinn, Leonardo Santucci as Ruckly, Naman Clark as Aide Turkle, Shaun Diggs as Aide Williams, Elisa Fuentes as Sandra and Sha-lemar Davis as Candy Starr.

“All these roles are challenging, and the students really get their teeth into them,” Sheeley says. “They will do justice to this show. They are working with gusto. We had discussions and comparisons of mental health treatment, then and now. We are now more politically correct while questioning if relying totally on medication is the ultimate answer.”

While McMurphy’s own behavior is wonderfully unconventional as he confronts and resists, there are huge costs, both physical and emotional. McMurphy does accomplish what the rigidity and shaming have totally failed to do and has created apparent success. The system retaliates with electric shock treatments and the extinct practice of lobotomy. Some of the patients’ ultimate solutions are suicide or mercy killing. “The Cuckoo’s Nest” too soon ceases to be funny and tumbles over the edge into deadly serious and brutal.

Sheeley notes the students were horrified by the treatment and attitudes toward mental health the play highlights from the ’60s and ’70s.

“It was eye-opening for them,” he says.

This teachable moment opportunity was part of his thinking in deciding to include the script in Sinclair’s four-play schedule.

The play had a revival in 1971 off-Broadway with Danny DeVito as Martini. More recently there was a Broadway revival in 2001 with Gary Sinise as McMurphy.

There was a well-received film in 1975 starring Jack Nicholson, but it was based on the original novel and the dialogue is not like the stage version. Sheeley has not seen or used any references to the film, and urges audiences to see the play as the original it is, making no comparisons.

Sinclair professors and staff and some students have created the technical designs: fight choreography by Gary Minyard, scenic design by Terry Stump, property design by student Gina Fidder, costume design by Kathleen Hotmer, lighting and sound design by Dan Brunk and student Jennifer Landis is stage manager.

Discussions following the theatre experience could certainly touch on the larger issues of enlightened mental health treatment as well as use and abuse of power, appropriate rebellion and respect for all humanity. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” continues to have relevance as we think about our contemporary world.

Sinclair’s performance of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” takes place April 8-16 at Blair Hall Theatre, 444 W. Third St. in Dayton. Tickets are $18, $15 for students and seniors, except for the Throwback Thursday performance, April 14 at 7 p.m., when all seats are $10. The Thursday and Sunday shows will be interpreted in American Sign Language by Frank Gayhart, Andrew Burris and Jordan Israel-Kendrick. For tickets or more information, please visit sinclair.edu/tickets.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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