As the opening salvo of its three-show Dale Wasserman Festival, Ventura-based Rubicon Theater Company is offering an engrossing perusal through Wasserman’s epic struggle between an unmanageable free spirit and an all-powerful specter of community conformity. Under the intuitive guidance of helmer Jenny Sullivan, this legiter’s transparent themes are impressively realized as an impeccable ensemble fluidly inhabit the menagerie residing within Wasserman’s “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Wasserman adapted Ken Kesey’s popular 1962 antiestablishment novel for the stage in 1963.
Driving the action in this production is the riveting battle waged between Chris Butler’s wily, reptilian McMurphy and Gigi Bermingham’s controlling, agenda-entrenched Nurse Ratched.
The McMurphy/Ratched mano a mano is played out in Thomas S. Giamario’s impressively lived-in State Mental Hospital day room, with its worn folding table and chairs and requisite elevated nurse’s station, making optimum use of the Rubicon’s limited stage area.
Sullivan’s staging strongly underscores that the unfolding drama is being realized through the scarred psyche of Chief Bromden (Tim Sampson), a Native American who has successfully executed the ruse of being a deaf mute to evade the machinations of Nurse Ratched’s offhandedly cruel orderlies (L. Trey Wilson, Brandon St. Claire Saunders, Kevin James). Though much of his dialogue is executed by pre-recorded voiceover, Sampson (the son of film version’s Will Sampson) conveys Bromden’s tortured inner life while giving credible voice and perspective to Kesey’s indictment of an institutionalized society.
Bermingham admirably avoids turning Ratched into an automaton of efficiency for its own sake. In her crisp, starched white uniform, Ratched is a stern but caring taskmaster who handles her charges more as if they were undisciplined students than as inmates. She is as quick to praise as she is to scold, her fleeting smiles suggesting she relishes any advancement in her goals for these men. Bermingham also makes tangibly genuine Ratched’s transformation from misguided caregiver to avenging monster as the catastrophic presence of McMurphy eventually strips her of her authority and dignity, revealing her woeful limitations as a human being.
Butler’s McMurphy is a spellbinding amalgam of carnival huckster, jiving minstrel man and potentially dangerous sociopath, who has conned his way out of a prison work farm and imposed himself on Ratched’s well-ordered routine. Butler’s darting eyes and malleable face constantly reflect McMurphy’s quick appraisal of every situation to see if it can be manipulated in his favor. He immediately assumes the mantle of “bull goose loony,” constantly taking advantage of the others while simultaneously displaying intuitive insight and believable compassion for his fellow inmates. He even manages to establish camaraderie with the institution’s self-effacing psychiatrist, Dr. Spivey (Cliff De Young), which sets in motion the inevitable lethal confrontation with Ratched.
Deserving an ensemble-within-an-ensemble award are Ratched’s well-medicated but still electrically vital family of “loonies” that careen off and through one another as if they have occupied each other’s space all their lives. They include Joseph Fuqua’s deceptively haughty but ultimately humane Harding; John Ainsworth’s touching portrayal of stuttering boy-man Billy Bibbit; and Travis Michael Holder’s emotion-ravaged but highly observant Cheswick.
Adding continuous comic relief are John Slade’s doomsday-prophesizing Scanlon and Dan Gunther’s hallucinating Martini. A constant reminder of what could become of any inmate who incurs Ratched’s final solution is the catatonic, lobotomized visage of Nick Santoro’s Ruckley.
The Rubicon Theater Company’s tribute to Wasserman will continue with the tuner “Man of La Mancha” and the world premiere of Wasserman’s “Open Secrets.”