“She’s not as unbeatable as you think,” says mental ward inmate R.P. McMurphy, dismissively underestimating his arch-nemesis Nurse Ratched. McMurphy’s fatal inability to recognize the destructive extent of Ratched’s honey-coated evil sets the stage for brutal confrontations, and these clashes, on view at the newly renovated Barnum Theater, derive force from Dale Wasserman’s tightly structured adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel. But the Viking Underground production works only as stormy melodrama, not as a mythic study of good vs. evil, due primarily to skin-deep portrayals and a failure to individualize the story’s secondary characters.
McMurphy, for all his raging rebellion, is meant to represent the soaring beauty of freedom, as contrasted with Nurse Ratched’s relentless insistence on discipline and conformity. Ryan Douglas Hurst is an imposing, burly presence, and when he bursts onstage in a bright orange prison jumpsuit he creates an atmosphere of danger.
Unfortunately, there’s no underlying slyness or charm behind his vulgarity; he’s more like an insensitive menace than a hero. Jack Nicholson found a way to blend anger with vulnerability in the Oscar-winning 1975 film. Hurst pushes too hard, emphasizing aggression without enough suggestion of frailty and heartbreak. The result is that we never feel we know him.
Given Hurst’s mutinous, ungovernable McMurphy, Nurse Ratched’s objections to his behavior don’t seem unreasonable in the first act. We’re allowed to become too impatient with McMurphy’s antics, rather than feeling the impulse to cheer him on. Needed balance would be achieved in their deadly duel if the castrating villainy of Nurse Ratched (Cynthia Marty) was spelled out more strongly.
Marty’s underplaying of the Ratched role makes her merely icy and reserved, rather than monstrous (except, perhaps, when her choice of music for therapy provokes the response, “What’s so therapeutic about Kenny G?”).
Ratched observes of Hurst’s McMurphy, “He is not, in fact, extraordinary — he’s simply a man, nothing more.” The trouble is, we agree with her, rather than with schizophrenic speech- and-hearing-impaired Indian Chief Bromden (Austin Kemie), who perceives in McMurphy an extraordinary and magical spirit.
Kemie’s Chief — directed with insight by Frank X. Ford — is a silent, unobtrusive figure at the start, but he has a quiet magnetism. His understated empathy is touching when he bonds with McMurphy, and he conveys realistic agony after Nurse Ratched learns he has been faking his condition and exposes that pretense to other inmates. Whether violently smashing the window in his escape, or strangling the lobotomized McMurphy so McMurphy’s soul can fly freely away from his mutilated body, Kemie vividly demonstrates that freedom from tyranny is ultimately possible.
Although the numerous group therapy sessions are awkwardly staged on chairs arranged in a row, rather than permitting the patients to face each other and their tormentor, a few characters stand out. Forest Erickson is a portrait of shivering terror as stuttering, sexually insecure Billy Bibbit. Erickson’s perf alerts us to the potential in this man-boy, if he can extricate himself from the clutches of his devouring mother and nurse.
David Wells, as literate Harding, expertly delivers a speech defining the “guilt, shame, fear” that keeps voluntarily incarcerated patients from venturing into the outside world. Stuart Damon (“General Hospital”) is amiable and sympathetic as Dr. Spivey, who struggles to see McMurphy’s position.
Eugene Lebowitz convincingly conveys Martini’s nervous tics and mannerisms, while Cheswick (Leonard Kelly-Young) makes the most of his outburst against Nurse Ratched for denying him cigarettes. Marty breaks loose from her overly tame interpretation when chastising Billy viciously for losing his virginity, driving him to suicide.
Acoustics at the Barnum need work — some of the dialogue is unintelligible — and the suits furnished by Jo Davis for patients and staff don’t catch the flavor of a mental hospital.
More successful are lighting effects that include streaks of flashing red and charges of electricity during an electroshock treatment.
Nonstop imagery projected on screens to the left and right of the stage is overused, but one visual — blood smeared on a wall — is a stark climactic reminder of the price that must be paid to fight sanctimonious killers like Nurse Ratched who want to, as a character says, “tranquilize us straight out of existence.”