“Cool Hand Luke” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are both high on any list of classic films of the modern period. They’re the same kind of hero/martyr story, centered on one character’s resistance against confinement. Based on novels from the early 1960s, these allegorical yarns express a precise flavor of rebellion against conformity that was popular in its era. Our antihero enters a world not of his making. His dispirited follow captors’ morale is buoyed by the defiant actions of their new bunkmate. Thus, the iconoclast becomes the icon. He fights a corrupt system for all of them. He fights for all of us. In the end, of course, the system wins. The warrior earns his freedom the hard way. “Luke” went straight from novel to cinema in just two years. “Cuckoo’s Nest” took longer, having first been adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman in 1963. This play is enjoying a fine production at Vagabond Players right now.
It’s been a long wait for this cast and production team, but audiences will find the finished product well worth it. The show is highly polished, energetic, and provocative.
Audra M. Mullen directs a cast of 16—quite large for a non-musical—and keeps the action humming throughout. There are terrific individual performances up and down the list, as well as some really effective ensemble work. Patrons who are familiar with dimensions at Vagabond’s may rightly wonder how a play with so many characters can be viable in that cozy space. Copious credit goes to Mullen, who uses every inch of Roy Steinman’s set. This static dayroom in a mental hospital is richly detailed and dingy, like its occupants. Wasserman’s script rarely calls for more than half of the characters to occupy the stage at once, and that’s certainly a help, but Mullen’s direction embraces the chaos that’s bound to happen in such a setup. She puts it to work in service of the story.
Stephen M. Deininger bears the unenviable task of playing R.P. McMurphy, a character originated by Kirk Douglas, and set to celluloid by Jack Nicholson. McMurphy is a man with a relatively uninteresting criminal résumé who hatched a scheme to get himself out of a prison farm by feigning insanity (if only Luke had thought of that). His new digs offer comfort—sort of—and the chance to bilk his new friends of their savings through a series of gambling exercises. First, he must establish dominance. “Who is the bull goose loony here?,” he demands upon his bombastic entrance, impatient to take on the position by coup de folie. Deininger is a bubbly, exuberant force of nature in the role. Deep down, his McMurphy is a cheerful sort of fellow. Imagine Elwood P. Dowd having been written 20 years later, with input from the Beat Generation. Would he have made it out of Chumley’s Rest alive?
The institution staff is led by the sadistic Nurse Ratched, played here by Lauren Jackson. It’s worth noting right away that there are two actors by that name in Baltimore. This Jackson is not the one we know from work with Sisters Freehold, Single Carrot, Rapid Lemon, and Everyman. This particular Lauren Jackson hails from West Virginia and appeared at Vagabond a few years ago. She has also performed with Landless Theater. In “Cuckoo’s” this Jackson is a smiling, devious monster—the perfect midcentury idea of middle management that’s spun out of control. Dr. Spivey (Anthony Rufo) may think he’s in charge, but it’s really Ratched who twists the knobs and pushes the buttons until, that is, she’s backed into a corner and misplays her hand. Then, the doctor’s voice of reason reasserts but leaves a loophole open for the nurse to exploit.
Joi Pride and Nate Krimmel play Ratched’s minions, the aides Williams and Warren, respectively. They’re both adapt at understanding their place in the pecking order, with only the patients to boss around. The patients, aside from McMurphy, are represented most keenly by the Native American character Chief Bromden (Adam Garrison). Bromden presents as deaf/mute, but we hear his inner voice in direct address between scenes. He talks to his late father about the evil Black Machine: a seemingly imagined, mostly metaphorical representation of what that generation—and subsequent ones—sought to rage against. Garrison is brilliant in this challenging role. The rest of the residents are compelling in smaller ways. Dale Harding (John Dignam) is the brainiac of the bunch and the former alpha inmate prior to McMurphy’s arrival. Billy Bibbit (Andy Belt) is a stammering virgin. Scanlon and Cheswick (Jonathan Lightner and Matthew Payne) are peas in a pod. Blocked together for most of the action, they deliver a sort of buddy act that’s gorgeous and big. One of them is Beavis, the other is Butthead, and it doesn’t matter which is which. Lightner’s cackling laughter and Payne’s hypercharged energy may feel like background much of the time, but the pair is responsible for establishing the tempo of the room. Lou Otero, as Martini, does a lot of hugging himself and sitting on chair backs. Ruckly, post-lobotomy, is played by Matt Leyendecker. The actor is large in physical stature, and does amazing work of playing the wordless character as a completely shrunken man.
Aide Turkle, the night watchman, is performed by Baltimore stage veteran Peter Wilkes. Turkle is a hapless yet happy fellow, singing to himself while making his rounds. His rendition of “It’s Hard to be Humble” doesn’t quite qualify as a musical number, but it’s still a joyful respite from the play’s relentless tension. Turkle conspires with McMurphy to facilitate a clandestine party in the ward, complete with contraband liquor supplied by McMurphy’s “twitch,” Candy Starr (Ari Juno), and Candy’s friend, Sandra (Sydney Marks). Sandra is a thick-headed drunk, and Marks is delightfully convincing in that capacity. Juno is so, so powerful here. They give Candy a fish-out-of-water feeling, without surrendering any of the character’s agency.
Joel Selzer’s lighting is subtle and effective. It frames and punctuates Chief Bromden’s intercut soliloquies, and adds a simple but very cool effect to a moment of electroconvulsive therapy in the second act. Sound is by Deininger and it’s first rate. He synchs with Selzer in representing the Chief’s inner world, providing underscoring that suggests the Black Machine, and fills the rest of the play with everything from electrical zaps to Lawrence Welk. Maeve Koch’s costumes and props suit the style and setting of the story perfectly. Combat choreography is by Payne, and intimacy is managed by Alana Rae Sackman. The production also employed a mental health consultant, Bridie Vickery. This was a prudent idea, as the play necessarily deals with mental health issues. Half of the characters in the play are patients/inmates of the asylum, and each of them must present a unique psychological profile. In some cases, the playwright helps with specifics, like Bibbit’s stutter or Ruckly’s catatonia. In others, director and actors are left to their own devices. Our ideas of what’s acceptable in representing these dysfunctions have changed in the 60 years since the play premiered. Vagabonds’ portrayals do include familiar devices which border on cliché, like tics/rocking/maniacal laughter. Some of this comes off as a bit cringeworthy, but it’s more incidental than integral. The driving force of the play belongs to the lucid.
Vagabonds’ production of “Cuckoo’s” was planned and cast before the COVID pandemic. It’s been a long wait for this cast and production team, but audiences will find the finished product well worth it. The show is highly polished, energetic, and provocative.
Running time: Two hours and 22 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Profanity, talk of self-harm, depictions of stereotypes surrounding mental illness.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” runs through June 11, 2023 at Vagabond Players, 806 South Broadway, in Baltimore. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office at (410) 563-9135 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The box office is open on performance days one hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Tickets are also available online. Face masks are optional.