Welcome to the Cuckoo’s Nest
by Kevin Rushworth
Dark, looming shadows played eerily upon sterilized white walls as the curtain rose on Theatre Calgary’s production of the celebrated play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The encompassing themes were set from the play’s opening scene; it is fall of 1961. An Aboriginal patient, Chief Bromden — played with brilliant insight into humanity by Bernard Starlight — stands centre stage in the darkness of a state mental hospital.
His long, lank hair is splayed against his face. His opening monologue — a sorrowful outlook on how people fall out the bottom of society’s system — resonated with our history of treating mental illness. As a key member of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, novelist Ken Kesey — who penned the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — interviewed patients at a veterans’ hospital during a study on the effects of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD.
It was his conclusion that they had become victims of society. One year after the book’s publication in 1962, acclaimed American playwright Dale Wasserman wrote the stage adaptation. Just as Kesey broke conformity with the Merry Pranksters aboard his psychedelic bus, the character of Randle P. McMurphy went against the ward rules in his own special way. As stated in the production, the ward is nothing more than society in miniature.
McMurphy — who was portrayed with pure, raw emotion by Shaun Smyth in the Theatre Calgary production and Jack Nicholson in the film version — is in a struggle with society. He is a man standing up against the society of the world. In an electrifying metaphor, patients are subjected to shock treatment and surgical operations if they go against the rules of the ward. McMurphy’s fight against the system connects deeply with the character of Chief Bromden, who hides his true self in a vegetative state.
As the nurses and aides slowly break down the other patients, Bromden comes out of his shell. In a gripping, emotional scene, he spreads his palms out to the enraptured audience. In a quiet voice, he tells of his once- proud father who turned to the bottle after being broken by the reservation system. Despite his hulking stature, he in turn also became “broken.”
On the ward, every small success is brilliant. With incredible stage lighting and cast direction, the scene lives and breathes as a dynamic asylum on stage. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can be described as a story of love, humanity, brotherhood, and redemption.
It is more than a story about how two men stand up to society and it was brilliantly brought to the Theatre Calgary stage by the cast and crew involved. My hat goes off to director, Miles Potter, for making me happy, making me sad, and enhancing my belief in the spirit of humanity. Audiences can catch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at Theatre Calgary until Oct. 3