‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ still fights the good fight; stage version of Kesey’s novel resonates now as much as ever

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Oh, how we love our rebels — even if we know they’re doomed.

Somehow, that makes us love them even more.

Thanks to Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, we can return to one of the most enduring themes of 20th century American literature: the eternal struggle of the individual to declare his humanity in opposition to the strictures of an oppressive society.

The MET’s intimate environment is giving theatergoers a chance to experience the genre up close and personal with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on Ken Kesey’s classic novel. And as the epic antagonists — troublemaker Randle McMurphy and authoritarian Nurse Ratched — we have two of our most respected Kansas City actors, Scott Cordes and Jan Chapman.

Scott Cordes plays iconic rebel Randle McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (Susan Pfannmuller for the Kansas City Star)

Perhaps no author has articulated the rage-against-the-machine theme as famously as Kesey, whose book, published 50 years ago, was adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman in 1963 and became an Oscar-winning film in 1975.

Its depiction of McMurphy, an authority-flaunting war veteran, and his conscious disruption of order in a psych ward ruled by a control-freak nurse, dovetailed perfectly with the 1960s youth rebellion and civil rights struggle. The book ultimately came to be seen as a statement on conscientious objectors and draft dodgers during the Vietnam War.

“He makes a lot of sense to me,” Cordes said. “You’ve got to fight the Man. You’ve got to question the Man. In this case, the woman. I just like the idea that he comes to this place that hasn’t heard laughter or singing, and he gives something to each one of these men. He helps them out. He gives something back to them that they had before but lost. The way this nurse treats these men, it just seems like she’s (castrating them), which doesn’t seem like a way to heal somebody.”

Jan Chapman as Nurse Ratched at the MET (Susan Pfannmuller for the Kansas City Star)

“Cuckoo’s Nest” reflected a thematic streak that ran through much of the fiction and movies of the ’60s and ’70s. Donn Pearce’s chain-gang novel “Cool Hand Luke,” which became a widely seen 1967 film starring Paul Newman, owed a debt to “Cuckoo’s Nest.” And both followed Edward Abbey’s 1956 novel, “The Brave Cowboy,” in which an anachronistic cowhand unsuccessfully confronts the mechanized modern world. Abbey’s book was the basis of “Lonely Are the Brave,” a classic 1962 film produced by and starring Kirk Douglas.

Indeed, Douglas played Randle McMurphy when the stage version of “Cuckoo’s Nest” opened on Broadway, but he could never get a film made. Eventually his son Michael produced the movie version but cast Jack Nicholson instead.

Nicholson’s work then was dominated by characters who were philosophical rebels — the doomed country lawyer in the iconic “Easy Rider,” a concert pianist working in the California oil fields to escape his past in “Five Easy Pieces,” a Navy lifer reluctantly escorting a kid to the brig in “The Last Detail” and a private eye confronting raw power in “Chinatown.”

But you could argue that “Cuckoo’s Nest” remains the most powerful distillation of the notion that to fight the good fight — to confront monolithic authority — rebels do so at their own risk.

Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces'

“When those in power are questioned, they come down on those who question and speak up,” Chapman said. “It’s a little microcosm of what’s going on in the real world, and I don’t think things have changed a lot.”

The talented Chapman, a MET company member, and Cordes, who has chalked up a series of memorable performances in MET productions, were cast even before a director was in place. Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, said she often looks at actors’ schedules well in advance as she seeks windows of opportunity for them to do shows.

“I had thought of it for Scott a long time ago,” Paisley said. “I was thinking that it would be fun to do. … And of course we started planning it probably a year ago, so in some ways it was a vehicle for Scott. But we always try to pick really extraordinary plays that are going to create extraordinary experiences for our audiences and pick material for actors to do what they were meant to do.”

Douglas in "Lonely Are the Brave"

Paisley asked William Christie, the American Heartland Theatre’s resident stage manager, to direct the piece after she saw his staging of the quirky “39 Steps” for the Heartland.

“I appreciated the creativity he brought to ‘The 39 Steps,’ ” she said. “And it was a semi-minimalist approach, which is our normal mode of operation.”

Christie’s first task was to fill the rest of the show’s 16 roles through open auditions. That’s a huge cast by current standards, and the group includes a number of MET regulars — Alan Tilson, Priest Hughes, Sam Wright, Chris Roady and Ari Bavel, who plays Chief Bromden, the novel’s narrator. Other notable cast members include veteran theater artist Tyler Miller as Ruckley and Dan Hillaker as Billy Bibbitt. Read the rest at kansascity.com.m

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