At one point or another in their lives, many otherwise normal people have felt like they could use some time in a mental institution. I know I have. Mental illness isn't black and white. Those suffering from it are capable of moments of startling lucidity. Those who usually behave sanely are capable of skipping off the brink into the abyss.
Who's to say who's mentally ill and who isn't?
One of the best literary examinations of this riddle is Ken Kesey's classic counterculture novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In the history of American letters, there's never been another book quite like it. Many people are more familiar with the Oscar-winning film version starring Jack Nicholson in one of his most memorable roles. Around the time that film was released, Dale Wasserman also adapted the novel into a two-act play.
I still have distinct memories of seeing a production of this play in high school. I recall thinking it was pretty decent. My one gripe was that the director decided to play an inaudible audio tape of Chief Bromden's monologues.
In a new production at the Vortex Theatre, director Aaron Worley allows Chief Bromden, played by David Wiegand, to act out this narration. I have to say it was nice to actually be able to hear what the Chief was saying.
There are slight but significant narrative differences between the novel, movie and play, but generally they follow the same basic story. Randall P. McMurphy (Vic Browder) checks into a mental institution to get out of working off his sentence in a regular prison. It's never quite clear whether McMurphy is mentally disturbed or just a clever con man.
After arriving at the asylum, he quickly becomes a leader among a colorful bunch of patients that includes Billy Bibbitt (Jeremy Joynt), Martini (Scott Bryan), Cheswick (Justin Lenderking), Dale Harding (Shangreaux Lagrave), Scanlon (John Wylie) and Chief Bromden, a giant Native American who everyone believes is both deaf and dumb. Gambling, sex, drunkenness and other flagrant rule-breaking soon ensue.
The head of the ward, the icy Nurse Ratched (Dodie Montgomery), is unpleased by this disruption to her otherwise meticulously disciplined hospital. A battle of wits and wills erupts between Ratched and McMurphy that eventually ends in tragedy.
There are some weak links in this large cast, but we're compensated with two stunning performances from the two leads. With his crazed energy and machine gun laugh, Browder nails the role of McMurphy. Nicholson himself didn't do much better, and Browder creates several idiosyncratic touches for the character that are all his own.
Montgomery's Big Nurse is precisely the hyper-rational, vindictive, authoritarian witch Kesey imagined her to be. She scared the pants off me.
Of the other cast members, the best is probably Scott Bryan as Martini. Bryan injects countless subtle comic elements into this small but indispensable role.
Neither movie nor play, of course, can compare with the book, but it's still entertaining to see Kesey's parable brought to dramatic life. This Vortex version might not be perfect, but most sane people will enjoy it.
Patients! Time for your medication!