Spectrum’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Takes the Stage Amid National Conversations on Mental Illness

On the very same day the Spectrum Theatre Ensemble opened its production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Wilbury Theatre, in the kind of irony the poets dream of, the president expressed a desire to reopen mental institutions in order to combat mass shootings – the likes of which were largely shut down in the wake of the 1962 novel upon which the play and later the renowned film were based. While Cuckoo’s Nest is something of an historic piece at this point – patients with mental illnesses now have more rights, and treatments are generally less barbaric (not to mention the rampant misogyny within the story) – it also remains shockingly (no pun intended) relevant in the wake of this scapegoating by the president and many others. Placing the blame on the mentally ill for the now commonplace mass shootings further stigmatizes an already stigmatized population; people with mental illnesses are more often victims of violence than perpetrators thereof.

Which is to say that Cuckoo’s Nest is a relevant choice right now, and STE may be the perfect choice to put it on. For the uninitiated, STE is a theater group that brings together neurotypical and neurodivergent performers – those on and off the autism spectrum. What better group to tackle a production that examines how society views and treats people considered to defy its norms?

STE makes the audience, as well as the stage, an accessible place for its neurodivergent members by making its shows sensory friendly. This involves providing audience members with a list of sensory intense moments, involving loud sounds or lighting changes. For neurotypical audience members, on the flipside of this list is a terminology breakdown so as to better understand what it means for a performance to be sensory friendly and why it is needed, as well as coping mechanisms others may engage in.

Many will come into this show familiar with the story, having seen the film, or maybe even read Ken Kesey’s book. The play aligns itself more closely with the novel, particularly in having Chief Bromden act as the narrator. The monologues of the presumed deaf and dumb son of a Native American chief provide a frame for the action of the play. These monologues make the role perfect for a poet, and who better to deliver them than newly minted Motif winner for Best Spoken Word Artist, Jay Walker? In addition to his gorgeous delivery of these poignant passages, Walker brilliantly inhabits the role of a large man who feels small; though impassive at first, he warms up to a friendship with McMurphy, and reveals himself to be a gentle giant. 

McMurphy is the new patient on the ward. There mostly to avoid a sentence of hard labor and not because he actually suffers from a mental illness, McMurphy is a short fuse with a penchant for gambling. Teddy Lytle is dynamic in this role, agitatedly pacing the stage like a tiger in a cage. He encourages his fellow patients, including their leader, Dale Harding (Daniel Boyle), hallucination-prone Martini (Daniel Perkins), stuttering virgin Billy Bibbit (Geoffrey Besser), bomb-happy Scanlon (Adam D. Bram), timid Cheswick (David Adams Murphy) and the vegetative Ruckly (Adam Almeida), to stand up to the oppression they face on the ward.

Oppression here goes by the name of Nurse Ratched. She runs the ward with an iron fist. Madison Weinhoffer is terrifying, with her steely gaze and plastered-on smile barely containing her sinister, twisted nature. McMurphy declares war on her from the moment he enters the ward, but little does he know that picking a fight with Ratched means punishment in the form of electroshock therapy or worse, a lobotomy.

The costumes, designed by Kat Fortner, feature a lot of grey, with McMurphy being the only one with any color in his wardrobe. Though it might not seem like there is a lot of room for creativity with costumes for nurses and patients, this production proves that wrong by adding robot-like accessories in order to illustrate one of Bromden’s monologues that compares the asylum to a machine built to control its inhabitants: “They got wires runnin’ to each man and units planted in our heads… We got cog-wheels in our bellies and a welded grin.” Gears also feature prominently in the set, designed by Max Ponticelli. In the center of it all is the nurses’ station on a raised platform, imposing and formidable, from which the nurses see all.

This production’s run has gotten off to an excellent start, packing a full house on opening night. In fact, due to their success thus far, they have already extended the run for an additional weekend. This warm reception is well-deserved, due in no small part to director Clay Martin’s fantastic work with this talented cast. It is heartening to see the support this show is getting, especially with STE’s mission of making the theater a more inclusive space and their choice of a show that aligns well with this mission. Perhaps if the president were to see this show, he might think twice about his recent statement on mental illness and bringing back the institutions of yore. At least for the rest of us, we have this exquisite and intense piece of theater to remind us of the horrors of how people with mental illnesses were once treated, the dangers of othering people who deviate from the norm and the importance of standing up to oppression.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, hosted by Spectrum Theatre Ensemble and The Wilbury Theatre Group, runs through Aug 31 at the Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Court, PVD. For tickets and more information, visit stensemble.org.

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