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A Sterile Cuckoo

The 19th-Century Spirit of a '60s Standard

It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World: Mark Squirek and Joe McCann in the Vagabonds' production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

By Jack Purdy | Posted 11/14/2001

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Dale Wasserman

One of the less edifying notions of the 1960s was that in an insane society the only really sane people are those locked up in institutions. It's a thread that runs through the period, in sappy movies like King of Hearts, in the writings of psychotherapist R.D. Laing, and even in public policy, as anyone who witnessed the deinstitutionalizing of the severely mentally ill during the 1970s, a '60s legacy, will recall. Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, turned into a play in 1963 and later into a phenomenally successful film starring Jack Nicholson, is often thought to have sprung from the same "crazy is sane" mind-set. But seeing the production now on at the Vagabond Players, it's clear that Kesey's viewpoint, preserved by playwright Dale Wasserman, was totally different.

For those who don't know the story, a hell-raiser named R.P. McMurphy (Mark Squirek), tired of serving a jail term on the work farm, connives to be get himself committed to a mental hospital, where he finds a group of timid men ruled by the tyrannical Nurse Ratchet (Amy Jo Shapiro). A minor con man, McMurphy tries to rally the men against Nurse Ratchet and winds up paying a terrible price, succeeding in liberating only a gigantic Native American, Chief Bromden (Joe McCann), who, in turn, does McMurphy the ultimate favor.

What becomes clear within the confines of the Vagabond Players spare hospital-day-room set is that the patients are a timorous, sniveling bunch incapable of genuinely responding to Murphy's goading, with the exception of the Chief, a supposed deaf-mute. What Kesey and Wasserman are arguing here--and, boy, is it an unfashionable argument--is that the natural man has no place in a society that has been feminized by ball-busting women, personified by Nurse Ratchet, who treats her nominal psychiatrist boss (Bruce Godfrey) like a little boy. She hates McMurphy because, in his own words, "I like to fight and fuck too much," and so she must break him.

McMurphy is also the only one who can unlock the secret of Chief Bromden's grief--the loss of his ancestral home and the dispossession of his people, the Columbia River tribe. The connection is made because McMurphy and the Chief are two 19th-century men trapped in a 20th-century world of control mechanisms and psychotropic drugs. But because they are "primitive," they know they are trapped, unlike their more sophisticated fellow inmates.

Amy Jo Shapiro's approach to Nurse Ratchet reinforces this whole notion. When challenged by McMurphy, she can blaze like a monarch. But much of the time, Shapiro brings a low-key seductiveness to the part, as if Ratchet knows that holding out even the faintest promise of sex to this bunch of losers will help make them toe the line. Mark Squirek is a solid McMurphy, but he makes the character slightly too amiable, never really connecting with Shapiro's sexualized approach. The real surprise here is Joe McCann, who, according to the program notes, hasn't acted since high school. His Chief Bromden achieves terrific pathos, especially when speaking of his ruined father.

One caveat: The program notes on the play and the novel are atrocious, shot through with factual errors, including putting Jack Kerouac "on the bus" with Kesey's Merry Pranksters and, most egregiously, claiming that Kesey wrote the book "with the encouragement of his mentor, Cassidy [sic]." That would be Neal Cassady, who according to Tom Wolfe's classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, did not meet Kesey until after the book was published. But what the heck. It's only history, right?

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