Before my friend Kyle and I settled in to watch the second half of Carolina’s decisive victory in last night’s NCAA Championship, we went to the Round House Theatre in Bethesda for their new production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Neither of us has ever read Ken Kesey’s novel, and it’s been years since either of us saw the movie adaptation, and yet we both respected what a challenge and a feat it was to mount a production of the play in the shadow of both book and film. Even folks near us who hadn’t seen the movie at all had at least seen clips of Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, and even brief images of that performance leave an impression. And I’d add that Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning turn as Nursed Ratched in the film was chillingly memorable as well. Still, in last night’s production, both Matthew Dettmer and Kathryn Kelley held their own in the shadow of such iconic film performances, and Kelly particularly came to dominate the stage in a late scene in which Nurse Ratched chastises young patient Billy Bibbet for his sexual indiscretions.
What struck me about the play, however, wasn’t the fine performances or the engaging set or even the high level of comedy in the production (a certain zaniness that I hadn’t expected), but rather the seemingly simplistic series of messages inherent in the script itself: authority as bad, craziness as redemptive (or even Christ-like), the domineering nature of women (and especially mothers), the plight of the American Indian. Certainly both book and film came out at a time of great political upheaval and even rebellion, but truthfully (perhaps a fault of memory) I don’t recall the film seeming quite as didactic as the play came across, and that aspect of the project sapped my appreciation of the whole thing — again, despite what struck me as a particularly accomplished production in many ways.
Just quick notes here reflecting on the play. Kyle has posted some comments and alternate perspectives at his own blog here.