By Martin F. Kohn
It has always been about the free-spirited rebel against The Man (in this case, The Woman), the individual against society, freedom versus repression, who’s crazy and who’s not, but “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” assumes an added meaning in Lavinia Hart’s very satisfying Hilberry Theatre production.
Audiences will discover, as has Hart, the idea that Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel is very much about friendship. More than friendship, really — an almost spiritual kinship between Randle M. McMurphy and Chief Bromden, a connection they express through exuberant roughhousing, what the lifeguards like to call “horseplay” before they throw you out of the pool.
This is a directorial masterstroke, well and boisterously executed by James Kuhl (McMurphy) and Erman Jones. Wordlessly, it provides more narrative depth, suggesting a backstory of two men who, until this moment, have never genuinely related to another human being.
A little background for those unfamiliar with the play, the novel or the movie. I know you’re out there because I heard you on opening night muttering questions and predictions about what would happen next.
McMurphy and the Chief (he’s an Indian) are inmates in a mental hospital on a ward run by the dictatorial Nurse Ratched (Safiya Johnson), a name connoting wretched, ratchet and, as McMurphy gleefully addresses her, rat shit. The Chief appears to be mute and catatonic, but he speaks his thoughts to begin the play and he voices subsequent thoughts, growing saner as this man in need of a role model finds one in McMurphy.
The other inmates are a pitiful lot, variously afflicted – one stutters badly, another hallucinates, a third poses as if crucified and drools – but all fear the outside world and live in dread of Nurse Ratched.
Enter McMurphy, the new guy, feigning insanity to escape from the rigors of the county prison farm. In his white T-shirt, black leather jacket, blue jeans and motorcycle cap, he incorporates the attitude of Marlon Brando and the individuality of James Dean with the geniality of Fonzie. It’s a characterization that Kuhl plays to the hilt, with charisma, a confident swagger, an eye for the truth, and a sense that he’s got the world by the tail.
McMurphy recognizes instantly that the worst thing wrong with the guys on the ward is a pathological lack of self-esteem and that Nurse Ratched is determined to keep them that way. The only thing he fails to recognize is that he may be in over his head.
Kuhl’s flawless performance is equaled by Jones’ as Chief Bromden, as he takes his tentative, well-paced steps on the path to self-awareness. As Nurse Ratched, Johnson comes off as a bossy scold with a mean streak rather than evil incarnate. The worst control freaks rarely have to raise their voices; they subdue with just a look or a soft word with menace behind it.
Christopher Otwell’s set is splendid. Predominantly gray, it has two splashes of color, the lights of the glassed-in nurses’ station at one end, and the window to the outside at the other, a hint that someone may fly over the cuckoo’s nest and someone else may not.
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in repertory through May 8. $25-$30. 313-577-2972. http://www.hilberry.com