One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

Just as Jean Rhys in Wide Sargassso Sea took the perspective of the so-called madwoman in the attic to put a new spin on Jane Eyre and Pia Pera offered Lolita’s opinions of Humbert Humbert in Lo’s Diary, someday someone will retell Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from the point of view of Nurse Ratched. Dedicated and overworked, she would struggle to care for her institutionalized mental patients while her newest charge thwarted her at every turn. Randall P. McMurphy would be a swaggering, intimidating, megalomaniacal good ol’ boy, a charismatic sexual predator, a manipulative egoist whose selfish antics ultimately triggered the suicide of one of the ward’s most pathetic patients.

Such an approach would have its drawbacks, no doubt. No matter how you twisted the narrative, it would be tough to justify the lobotomy that Ratched orders for McMurphy near the close of the story. But this new tack would help resolve the key problem with Dale Wasserman’s 1963 adaptation of Kesey’s 1962 novel, which anticipated the coming countercultural revolution but was still mired in the sexual politics of the 1950s. Exasperating in their rather juvenile misogyny, Wasserman and Kesey channel all their antiauthoritarian politics, all their dissatisfaction with the government, all their fury at the great “combine” that’s robbed citizens of their individuality just as it robbed indigenous Americans of their land, all their seething anger at the Man into the person of a nurse who soon reveals herself to be a cross between a Stepford wife and Cruella de Vil.

The story is not only dated but simplistic. (When we were assigned Kesey’s novel for our English class senior year, and I mentioned the assignment to a teacher I’d had as a junior, he scoffed, “That’s a sophomore text.”) Moreover Jack Nicholson’s ferocious take on McMurphy in the 1975 film version is one of the most recognized performances in cinema. (Director Milos Forman would later suggest another link between misogyny and the American “free spirit” in his sanitized tale of pornography and the First Amendment, The People vs. Larry Flynt.)

So why bother reviving One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? The answer, of course, is the character of McMurphy, about the closest the American theater comes to a role for the actor who wants to be a rock star, who wants to take the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar but can’t carry a tune. McMurphy is Jim Morrison, Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen and just the slightest hint of Charles Manson all rolled into one. And when you combine this iconic American character with one of Chicago’s most recognized actors, Gary Sinise, you have a recipe for sellout crowds.

You can’t really argue with success–there were more people gathered in the Steppenwolf lobby waiting for returned tickets than I’ve ever seen before. But you might have hoped Sinise would parlay his fame into attention for some overlooked work or ambitious new piece. Some of his Steppenwolf colleagues have certainly used the theater as a laboratory, but Sinise has generally tackled surefire hits, taking starring roles in The Grapes of Wrath and A Streetcar Named Desire and directing Buried Child. Similarly, it might be heartening that Sinise uses his star power to attract audiences who wouldn’t normally see live theater. But there’s something circular about the logic, drawing people who don’t normally go to theater with a production targeted at those who don’t normally go to theater. Also open to debate is the trade-off involved in reaching out to the tour-bus crowd at the expense of artistic product.

Still, most audiences come to see the stars and hear the hits. Sinise leading the esteemed Steppenwolf ensemble in Cuckoo’s Nest is like Michael Jordan leading his “supporting cast” in a Bulls game. And Sinise does give the people what they want. He bellows with anger, cries in anguish, dances a jig, stares down Nurse Ratched with a menacing scowl, lustily embraces his free-spirited girlfriend, Candy Starr. We feel a certain visceral pleasure in Sinise’s performance, recognizing his pain at being broken down by the system, his courage in sticking up for his fellow patients, his satisfaction in breaking through to them. Sinise seems to be having the time of his life, and his delight is infectious. When he bounded onstage for his curtain call and the audience members leaped to their feet, you half expected them to raise their Bics and shout “Free Bird!”

Sinise’s presence represents most of the show’s appeal and most of its problems. His overpowering portrayal coupled with the way Wasserman and Kesey stack the deck against Nurse Ratched pretty much guarantees we’ll see McMurphy as a hero. The result is reminiscent of a movie like Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam, where it’s not enough to train the camera on Robin Williams cracking jokes–you have to cut to shot after shot of GIs busting up at his antics. Here McMurphy is not only written as the sanest, wittiest, bravest, most heroic and vibrant character of the bunch, but the hospital doctor and staff are always trying to stifle their laughter at McMurphy’s jibes at Nurse Ratched.

Terry Kinney’s direction doesn’t help. Setting the action in 1965 and underscoring it with soul-stirring Jimi Hendrix music, Kinney enshrines McMurphy as a countercultural hero and presents Nurse Ratched (despite Amy Morton’s considerable efforts) as a sexless shrew–a “ball cutter,” as McMurphy puts it. Make no mistake: this is a stunningly acted show–you can’t take anything away from the performances. The worst you can say is that some of the 21-person ensemble are wasted on small, largely thankless roles, most notably the fine, mercurial K. Todd Freeman as the emasculated Dr. Spivey and the smart, resourceful Sarah Charipar as a nurse and floozy-ish sidekick to Mariann Mayberry’s effusive Candy Starr. But there isn’t a false performance in the bunch. Particularly fine work comes from Ross Lehman as Harding, the pompous head of the patients’ council; Tim Sampson as Chief Bromden (the highly symbolic American Indian character whom McMurphy befriends), desperately fearful despite his imposing size; and Rick Snyder as the trembling, nail-biting, somewhat snappish patient Cheswick. Snyder doesn’t get the same headlines as the Malkoviches, Metcalfs, and Sinises of the Steppenwolf ensemble, but in works like Side Man, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Morning Star he’s shown himself to be at least their equal in ability and perhaps their superior in versatility.

The show is exemplary from a technical standpoint as well; the only real liability is some overzealous sound and projection design. To illustrate Chief Bromden’s trippy narration, which forms the first act of the play, Sage Carter has provided massive impressionistic projections of snow and waterfalls, and Bromden’s internal monologues rumble and echo through the auditorium. Impressive but ultimately distracting, this aural and visual trickery is less effective at demonstrating the chief’s schizophrenic state than it is at indicating how Steppenwolf spent the Sara Lee Foundation’s considerable investment in this production.

One can’t help but feel that an opportunity has been lost to present the contradictory social and sexual politics of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a more critical light. Instead Sinise, Kinney, and Steppenwolf deliver a production as faithful as it is frustrating. When Candy Starr introduces herself to a patient and asks, “What are you in for?” his response–“rape”–is treated like a punch line. When shy Billy Bibbit announces his intention to lose his virginity to Candy by saying he’ll “burn that woman down,” all the patients whoop and holler like drunks at a rodeo.

Sure, Wasserman and Kesey see McMurphy as a Christ figure who dies to free the spirits of his imprisoned comrades; he even refers to himself as “Jesus Q. Christ” at one point and requests a crown of thorns the first time he’s given electroshock therapy. But most Christ figures, even when driven to rage, don’t rip off the dresses of their nemeses. After McMurphy is lobotomized and his asylum buddies talk of the second coming of R.P. McMurphy, it’s in terms of the time he pinched Nurse Ratched’s ass, the time he asked her her bra size, the time he leaped toward a timid nurse who pleaded, “Don’t touch me–I’m a Catholic.”

I’m all for bucking the system and questioning authority. But in this case that might mean hearing Nurse Ratched’s side of the story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.