Friday, February 12, 2010

M&D's 'Cuckoo's Nest' flies high

The first thing you notice about M&D Productions' staging of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” is its astounding set designed by Deborah Jasien. It authentically recreates a psych ward and gives a believable setting for the actors to play in. The set is indicative of the quality and care that went into the entire production.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” which opened Thursday, Feb. 12, at Your Theatre in Willow Common in North Conway and is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks, is about how Randal P. McMurphy (Kevin O'Neil), a convict who has been deemed potentially insane, shakes up the mental institution he is sent to.

This is not an easy show to produce. Not only because of its complex struggles between sanity and insanity, free-thinkers versus the establishment and how institutionalization affects someone, but simply because it is such a well-known show.

The play, based on the novel by Ken Kensey, was first staged in 1963. Twelve years later the famous film version was released and earned Jack Nicholson his first Academy Award as well as wins for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best actress for Louise Fletcher. It is an iconic film with performances from Nicholson and Fletcher that became benchmarks.

M&D's version, directed by Dennis O'Neil, holds its own against such a formidable predecessor. I've seen one other stage production of “Cuckoo's Nest” in London's West End starring Christian Slater in the lead role. Slater was phenomenal in the role, but the production was flawed and in many ways M&D's production outshines it.

One of the innate problems with the show is the monologues delivered by the character Chief Bromden (Dan Tetreault). When delivered directly to the audience they can be confusing, since the character is believed to be mute, and pull you out of the show. Dennis O'Neil corrects this potential problem by having these speeches pre-recorded and allowing them to become internal monologues.

Kevin O'Neil, who recently won best actor at the New Hampshire Theater Awards for his work in M&D's “Facing East,” gives another stellar performance. Those familiar with his previous work may be skeptical about his casting, but he makes the role his own. He has the right level of off-kilter high energy and a gleefully mischievous laugh. But his performance isn't just a looney taking over the looney bin; he hints at the real anger that lies within McMurphy.

Sarah Charles has perhaps the most difficult role in the show as Nurse Ratched, the head nurse that McMurphy butts heads with in a power struggle for control of the ward.

Ratched truly believes her methods are helping her patients even though to many she may seem like a sadist who enjoys tormenting these men. To go too far in that direction, though, is wrong. To go in the other direction and play her too soft is also the wrong approach. Getting that balance somewhere in the middle is what is so tricky about the character.

Charles does a nice job of finding that balance although she may be a bit too soft at times. It is believable, though, that she'd have power over these broken men. Charles even garners some sympathy for Ratched. Ratched loses herself in the conflict for control with McMurphy and ultimately does something that leads to tragedy.

The cast of inmates is stellar, and what this version gets absolutely right is how McMurphy changes these men. It isn't in a heavy-handed way, but by the end the changes are obvious. The friendship that develops between the chief and McMurphy is the heart of the show, and Kevin O'Neil and Tetreault play it beautifully.

Other noteworthy inmates include Tom O'Reilly as Dale Harding, who starts out as mousy and insecure, but as the show progresses slowly picks up more of McMurphy's traits. Eric Jordan as the stuttering Billy Bibbitt as also quite good. It would be easy to overdo a role with a stutter, but Jordan admirable underplays the role and makes it believable.

This is show with both big laughs and big emotions, and this production captures just the right tone in delivering both. If you are a fan of “Cuckoo's Nest” you won't be let down. If you haven't seen or read any of its previous versions, then this is a very good introduction.

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