Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s counter-culture novel still packs a punch, despite the obviousness of the authority-challenging theme and the indelible memory of the heavily Oscared 1975 Milos Forman film. In helmer Eric Hill’s thoughtful staging for the Berkshire Theater Festival, the inmates take over the aslyum — and the production — but in dramatically grounded ways. The solid ensemble and well-measured melodrama of the narrative make for a satisfying production, even if this “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” doesn’t quite make it into the audience’s hearts.
It takes a while to adjust to Jonathan Epstein’s Randle P. McMurphy, the charming lug of a con man who thinks a stay in a psych ward is better than prison. Working against Epstein is an unnatural red dye job and the fact that the actor is well past the rebel character’s charismatic prime. But his truthful perf ultimately wins out via actor’s craft and will. Like his character, Epstein succeeds by his bravura relentlessness, humor and nerve. By play’s end you realize McMurphy is an antihero for the ages, not just of an age.
Not so successful is Linda Hamilton’s Nurse Ratched. Hamliton, who scored last summer as the lusty Maxine in “Night of the Iguana,” seems unable to find the right pitch as the unnaturally serene control freak.
Instead her sing-songy speech evokes a vacant presence that could qualify her for admittance to the institution — not a woman whose unnerving calm belies absolute power. She rallies for her final scenes which require her to break from her artificial veneer, but the shift comes too late.
Randy Harrison gives a rich and poignant perf as the stammering, cowering Billy Bibbit. Harrison builds a well modulated arc as Bibbit gradually finds the nerve, inspired by McMurphy, to stand up for himself, only to unravel under Ratched’s chilling threats.
Austin Durant gives his stoic Chief Bromden a psychological complexity, and Tommy Schrider’s effeminate Dale Harding is also a standout.
Production values are first-class in the summer staging. Designer Karl Eigsti’s psych ward is a detailed model of institutional depression, lit with the right amount of practicality and despair by Matthew E. Adelson.
There’s little one can do with the script’s dated indulgences, especially the Chief’s rambling flights of woeful poetry, the flashes of colored lights and slo-mo effects. But the cast finds the humanity and credibility to make the lurid, sometimes over-the-top writing plausible and the work’s payoff still powerful.