CHT’s ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ a cel­e­bra­tion of de­fi­ance

Record Observer - - Arts & Entertainment - By PETER HECK pheck@thekent­coun­tynews.com

CHESTERTOWN — Are you ready for a the­ater ex­pe­ri­ence that — in the words of di­rec­tor Michael White­hill — is “a bit dif­fer­ent?” Then you def­i­nitely ought to see “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” di­rected by White­hill, at Church Hill The­atre.

Based on the novel by Ken Ke­sey, as scripted by Dale Wasser­man, “Cuckoo’s Nest” is the story of a group of men­tal pa­tients and those charged with their care, some­time in the 1960s. The novel, writ­ten by Ke­sey in 1962, is a sort of bridge be­tween the Beat Gen­er­a­tion and the Hip­pies — an out­raged cry against the re­pres­sion of the 1950s’ con­form­ist cul­ture.

The play be­gins with a scene es­tab­lish­ing sev­eral of the char­ac­ters, un­til a new pa­tient ar­rives: Ran­dle Pa­trick McMur­phy, who has faked in­san­ity so he can be sent to the hos­pi­tal in­stead of prison. From the start, McMur­phy sets out to chal­lenge the sys­tem, es­pe­cially head nurse Mil­dred Ratched, who runs her ward with an iron hand.

The es­ca­lat­ing bat­tle be­tween McMur­phy and “Big Nurse” Ratched be­comes the dom­i­nant theme of the play — build­ing to a dis­turb­ing cli­max that none­the­less bears a gleam of hope. Di­rec­tor White­hill, in his pro­gram notes, ad­dresses the play’s theme of the power strug­gle be­tween the forces of con­trol and those who ac­cept “the dif­fer­ences and ge­nius” the au­thor­i­ties would elim­i­nate.

Pa­trick Fee plays Chief Brom­den, an In­dian from one of the north­west tribes whose an­ces­tral lands were drowned by the Grand Coulee Dam. The char­ac­ter is di­ag­nosed as a cata­tonic who is un­able to hear or speak, and there­fore takes no part in group ther­apy ses­sions. Fee stalks about the stage silently, with a glow­er­ing face, mak­ing the char­ac­ter an omi­nous pres­ence in al­most ev­ery scene. A strong per­for­mance in a key role.

Howard Mes­sick is per­fectly cast as McMu­phy, the high-spir­ited rebel. In pre­vi­ous roles Mes­sick has shown him­self to be adept at over-the-top com­edy, and that spirit trans­fers well to this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. He makes it easy to see how this charm­ing con man comes to dom­i­nate the other pa­tients and dis­rupt the power of the sys­tem. This may be Mes­sick’s best per­for­mance to date.

Feli­cia Tut­tle takes the role of Nurse Ratched, a char­ac­ter she de­scribes in the pro­gram book as one of her dream roles. She plays Ratched not as a fierce tyrant but as a quiet author­ity fig­ure — her power im­plicit in the abil­ity to or­der shock treat­ment and to is­sue pun­ish­ments. Only as McMur­phy’s in­flu­ence be­gins to as­sert it­self does her ex­ter­nal cool­ness and pre­cise command of de­tail be­gin to crack.

Given its sub­ject mat­ter, the play un­sur­pris­ingly of­fers a rich va­ri­ety of col­or­ful se­condary roles, and sev­eral CHT veter­ans get to show off their chops. Wade Gar­rett, who has played sev­eral mem­o­rable roles in the past, is con­vinc­ing as Martini, a pa­tient given to vivid hal­lu­ci­na­tions. Liz Clarke and Emly Chi­ras are thor­oughly amus­ing as a pair of pros­ti­tutes that McMur­phy smug­gles into the hos­pi­tal for a party. And Ray Ran­dall, pre­vi­ously seen as the chauf­feur in “Driv­ing Miss Daisy,” is nicely cast as an aide McMur­phy bribes to let the party go on.

The cast also in­cludes sev­eral rel­a­tive new­com­ers in key roles. Tal­ley Wil­ford gets an im­por­tant role as Billy, the timid young pa­tient whose fear of the out­side world has led him to seek refuge in the asy­lum. John Perkin­son does a good job as Hard­ing, the un­of­fi­cial leader of the in­mates be­fore McMur­phy’s ar­rival. Richard Smith is con­vinc­ing as the mild-man­nered doc­tor nom­i­nally in charge of the ward, but eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated by both Ratched and McMur­phy.

Al­most as im­por­tant as any of the char­ac­ters is White­hill’s chllling set. Di­rectly be­fore the au­di­ence is a wire grill stretch­ing com­pletely across the front of the stage. Be­hind the grill is a stark com­mon room, with fold­ing chairs and ta­bles and an in­tim­i­dat­ing booth hous­ing the nurs­ing sta­tion.

White­hill said the idea for the grill came to him “about three o’clock one morn­ing.” It is a pow­er­ful vis­ual metaphor sep­a­rat­ing the au­di­ence from the “in­mates.” It also serves as a lit­eral fourth wall, and al­lows some phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity on the stage that would other­wise be all but im­pos­si­ble, such as an in­mates’ bas­ket­ball game. At sev­eral points, the ac­tors qui­etly in­ter­act with the “cage” that de­fines their space.

“Cuckoo’s Nest” presents adult themes and raw lan­guage that may make it in­ap­pro­pri­ate for younger the­ater go­ers. Like the novel it is based on, it is a de­lib­er­ate provo­ca­tion of or­der and deco­rum, el­e­vat­ing a petty crim­i­nal as its hero and invit­ing the au­di­ence to cel­e­brate his de­fi­ance.

“Cuckoo’s Nest” ends its run this week­end. Re­main­ing shows are at 8 p.m. Fri­day and Satur­day and 2 p.m. Sun­day. Tick­ets are $20 for adults, $10 for stu­dents.

Call the the­ater at 410-556-6003 or visit www.church hillthe­atre.org to make reser va­tions.

PHOTO BY C. PAT­TER­SON

From left, Tom Dor­man, Howard Mesick, Richard Smith and Feli­cia Tut­tle ap­pear in a scene from Church Hill The­atre’s pro­duc­tion of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

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