Escape From the Psycho Ward

From the moment Randle Patrick McMurphy bursts into Nurse Ratched's ward, all jovial and sassy because he's been committed here rather than sentenced to prison, you just know there's going to be trouble. The psychiatric ward, dedicated to the rehabilitation of "the weak," operates on a set of unspoken, unwritten rules that McMurphy, a poster child for the anti-establishment, thinks he can ignore. But as this time-honored classic unfolds, McMurphy's protest against the passive-aggressive bullying that Nurse Ratched has perfected on her charges is no match for her arsenal of literally mind-altering medical procedures. But for all his antics and aggression, McMurphy isn't really the protagonist here. He's a vehicle of change, a sacrificial lamb of sorts for Chief Bromden, who, during the course of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is brought out of his deaf/mute shell and escapes the ward under the cover of night. Physically, Chief Bromden is a hulking figure, but mentally he's a child haunted by conversations with his father, who, we later learn, became a "small man" when he sold the family land. Bromden, who has inherited this curse of mental smallness and fragility, is shoved and bullied by staff aides and generally ignored by everyone else.

The attention McMurphy shows Bromden pays dividends and awakens the man from a waking dream. It is Bromden who lifts the box filled with electrical wiring when McMurphy could not, and it is Bromden who casts the final vote to allow the men to watch baseball on TV. McMurphy exemplifies for him, and for all the men to a lesser degree, what it looks like when freedom takes the form of all-out rebellion. When Nurse Ratched plays her ace and has McMurphy lobotomized, we understand that McMurphy's tale is a cautionary one. Not all of the patients will ever muster the courage to leave, but at least they understand that leaving—and living—is a viable option.

The Charlie Pineapple Theater Company, making plays in Brooklyn's Williamsburg, far, far from Broadway's madding crowd, does a commendable job with this production. At a little over three hours, it could be shorter and probably will be, once the fairly good ensemble cast gels a bit more. George Stonefish is a well-cast Chief Bromden, making the disparity between his physical and mental presence believable.

Among the crazies, Michael Snow is Dale Harding, the voluntary admit and president of the Patients Council who is hiding from his sexuality. Snow plays Harding compassionately, steeling him against the pain of living with a razor-sharp wit and a finely attuned self-consciousness. Brian Leider and Christopher Franklin, as the stuttering Billy Bibbit and the amped-up Cheswick, are also a treat to watch. Both commit wonderfully to their characters and give the at times lagging production some of its much-needed energy.

In order for Cuckoo's Nest to work, the leads must communicate their utter hatred for each other with every breath. Nurse Ratched, a pent-up dominatrix in disguise if there ever was one, is a mistress of order and protocol. Sadly, Cidele Curo's performance leaves much to be desired—she neither projects strength nor that just-under-the-surface lust for strength that can electrify the clash between her and her charges. And as McMurphy, Jerry Broome seems to be acting under the influence, or perhaps the weight, of Jack Nicholson's performance in the hard to forget 1975 film. That said, there are worse things than a rehashing of that performance, but much of the ensemble work deserves a fresh and fully realized McMurphy to guide them.

Overall, this is one loony bin we shouldn't mind being locked up in for a few hours, just as long as we, like Chief Bromden, can escape once the going gets rough.

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