Though “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has been adapted in many forms – first the 1962 Ken Kesey novel came, followed by a Broadway premiere in 1963 and an Academy Award-winning film in 1975 – each has held its own bit of uniqueness, changing characters or pieces of the story to fit a certain aesthetic.
Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre’s upcoming production of the show is no different, as director Billy Joe Herbert and cast are making adjustments here and there to make it their own.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tells the tale of a mental institution in the 1970s, one that Herbert calls “not exactly top of the line:” overcrowded, still at a time when some of the more ghoulish practices in psychiatry were hanging around, and with a head doctor stricken by a nervous condition that leaves a horrid man-hating nurse to take charge of everything. There’s a bevy of mental patients to get to know, with lead character Randle Patrick McMurphy (who isn’t really crazy) being the one to come in and shake things up.
“The theme of the show is that society likes to put us in buckets, likes to label us – this is a schizophrenic, this one is obsessive compulsive, this one is psychotic – and this shows that that is not a good thing. It shows how much something like that can actually be abused,” Herbert said.
“When researching, I found that people have tried to diagnose all of the patients in the show, and they’ve never successfully been able to have a clear diagnosis for each character – and that’s intentional, because the whole show says that you shouldn’t be able to do that.”
The abusive one would be Nurse Ratched, portrayed by Regina Yeager, who toys with the patients in the institution.
“Somewhere along the line, she’s had some daddy issues, and she’s all about controlling men,” Herbert said. “In her mind, she thinks she’s doing exactly what should be done, and she’s kind of a sociopath in that way. She doesn’t go by society’s rules; she has her own.
“She controls all these men by pushing just the right buttons to tear them down. She gets them in a group therapy session and focuses on one patient at a time, turns these guys into a pack of hyenas, and they all basically attack each other.”
The pack is quickly broken, however, when McMurphy, played by John Schugard, steps onto the scene. He’s a man who was sentenced to a prison work farm and was transferred to the institution after feigning insanity.
The role of McMurphy was made recognizable through his portrayal on the big screen by Jack Nicholson, though that was something Schugard tried to ignore when getting into his role.
“It’s hard to forget about the Jack Nicholson performance, of course, but I had to,” he said. “I went back to the script and took my own impressions of him from there.
“The thing I’ve always kept in mind about McMurphy throughout is that he’s obviously a gambler and a drifter and someone who has been in and out of jail a lot, so the frame of mind I’ve used for him that make his actions fall into place is that he’s really an experienced convict. He comes into psychiatry thinking it’s the nicer alternative to prison, and he treats the other patients there more like his fellow inmates, and that’s where things go awry.
“Also, it’s very explicit in the script, from the dialogue and slang he uses, that McMurphy was born and raised in the country; he’s a country boy, so I use that to give him the rural basis I think the character should have.”
“McMurphy comes onto the scene and does the opposite of Nurse Ratched; he tries to take over the ward, but he does it by pushing the right buttons to build all these guys up. Ratched sees these guys slowly but surely slipping over to his side, and she tries everything she can to keep McMurphy down and stop that from happening,” Herbert added.
Herbert said that many people look at McMurphy as a hero for what he does for the men in the institution, but he may also be seen as a bit of an anti-hero for the way in which he does things. Schugard regards his character differently.
“At the end of the day, McMurphy is just a guy,” he said. “The fact that he runs into trouble with the law doesn’t make him a downright anti-hero. He’s an ordinary human being that’s been forced into heroic circumstances. I think our best bet is to leave it up to the audience whether McMurphy successfully rises to the occasion.”
His constant clashing with Ratched is the basis for the show, even though the pair is more alike than they know.
“Their biggest similarity that almost forces them to be at odds is that they both need to be in charge,” Schugard said. “Another similarity is that they both have no respect for the opposite sex; McMurphy is very much a misogynist and objectifies every woman he sees, and it’s so obvious that Ratched is a man hater. Really, none of their similarities are positive ones.”
Though everyone involved is very much affected by the duo, there’s one man who in particular is changed by Murphy’s emergence: Chief Bromden, a Native American who is thought to be deaf and mute, and is portrayed by K.K. Gordon. He serves as a sort of narrator for the show.
“You see the whole institutional experience through the Chief’s eyes,” Gordon said. “For him, it’s horrific. When you meet him, he’s pretty much afraid of the whole world and feels like something is going to crush him. He’s a very physically large and strong man, but he feels tiny.
Gordon cites the biggest influence on the chief’s behavior as his father and the trials he saw him go through.
“Native Americans lived on the Columbia River, and a huge company wanted to harness the river for hydroelectric energy, so they wanted the village to move, but one small village couldn’t fight a huge electrical company,” Gordon said. “His father really tried, whereas his mother was kind of a ‘You can’t fight city hall’ type of woman. Later on, the Chief goes to Vietnam and is given orders to burn a village, which of course reminds him of his own village, and that… landed him in the cuckoo’s nest.
“Though you meet him as someone who is frightened before, then wasn’t. He was the fighter once, but between the military and the institution, it’s all been knocked out of him. I play it like he sees life has become a nightmare that he’s trying to sleep through, and he’s just waiting for a hero to come and wake him up. What he learns through meeting McMurphy is that what he’s afraid of and the hero have been inside him the whole time.”
Gordon played the role of the Chief in a production at Diva Theater in Scranton years ago, but this time around, things were done differently for the part. The Chief’s monologues were not recorded to be used as voiceovers.
“That was one-dimensional to me,” Herbert explained, “and I didn’t want that. That’s not how I saw those monologues. We took it to another level, and now, when the Chief does his monologues, not only do we hear what’s going on, but when he talks about his childhood and experiences with his tribe and his father, we’re actually there with him experiencing those things. K.K. has taken the Chief role to a completely new level, and I think people are going to be impressed.”
Herbert said he asked all of his actors to take a multidimensional approach to the characters that make up a production of such heavy material. He knew this was the best way to go, as he played the part of patient Martini in a production in 1990.
“It was such a good show that, when this came around I thought, ‘You know what? I can’t let just anybody direct this.’ And it’s nothing against anybody else that would have done a fantastic job, but I’ve done a lot of acting, and I honestly prefer acting to directing, so I consider myself to be an actor’s director and, for a show like this, that’s what you need. You need people that think about this show through the eyes of an actor’s, so what I told my actors is I don’t want one-dimensional characters; I want you to throw away that whole idea of, ‘Well, my character is this,’ because it’s not that simple.”
Herbert said the cast has shocked him again and again and is “just stellar,” giving the local production an even bigger draw for the drama.
“I’ve had people tell me that people around here only enjoy musical theater, and I said that I don’t think I agree with that,” Herbert said. “If you do a show, new or not, that pulls people in and makes them feel, people will enjoy that and respond. The whole idea that people around here only enjoy musicals? Well, I think you have to give our audiences more credit.”