The production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that opened at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre this past weekend is well-designed and entertaining, and features a bunch of really fine individual performances - nearly a dozen, in fact.
Yet the show, directed by Jeri Benson, is a strange one, because everything that's off in it is off by just a few degrees - not enough to ruin the piece, but enough to make it play less successfully that it might have, and to make several key elements of Dale Wasserman's work no longer make sense. It's not a bad production of Cuckoo's Nest, but it's not quite Cuckoo's Nest, either.
Where, for example, is the threat? Even those unfamiliar with Cuckoo's Nest are at least familiar with its set-up: Rebellious life force Randle P. McMurphy (Chris White) is institutionalized in a mental hospital under the watchful eye of the fascistic Nurse Ratchet (Denise Yoder), and McMurphy uses his snaky charms to organize the inmates and inspire them to demand the human rights they're being deprived of. (What makes the play comedic, of course, is that McMurphy's idea of "human rights" is pretty much limited to the right to drink, gamble, and get laid.)
Yet in Playcrafters' version, not only do the inmates not seem much interested in changing the status quo - which is understandable, considering that adherence to routine has become their norm - but the audience doesn't necessarily see a reason to, either. Yoder's clipped, faux concern is just right for Ratchet, and she voices a chilling monotone when making announcements in the ward's control room (an inspired piece of set design). Yet she doesn't reveal the soulless, bureaucratic hatefulness of the character, and the hospital aides are less cruel than pesky; they're about as menacing as playground bullies. There's never a moment here when the inmates seem to need McMurphy. They enjoy him as an amusing member of the group, but not as the savior the material demands.
Which leads to a second question: Where is the madness? With the exception of Broc Nelson's endearing schizophrenic Martini, his attentions devoted to people who aren't there, the patients don't seem so much damaged as pathologically shy, and only Billy Bibbitt (the enormously touching Anthony Anderson, giving the show's best, most sustained performance) should come off that way. Again, this deficiency is a matter of degree - the inmates, after all, should be confined to their own worlds - but the setting here suggests less a mental-hospital ward than the Elks Club on a listless night. Part of the point of the show is that the hospital makes the inmates crazy, but you won't necessarily glean that here.
The actors playing the patients, among them Howard D. Johnson, Thom White, and Bob Moline, are earnest and in character, yet the anything-can-happen element of Cuckoo's Nest is missing, and the show feels far too sane until the arrival of Tom Betts' Dr. Spivey, who is meant to be drearily normal but seems far nuttier than any of his charges. (Betts breaks. Up his sentences in. Unusual ways and emphasizes. Words that. Aren't meant to be. Emphasized.)
Having said all that, though, Cuckoo's Nest does explode with life in a couple of ensemble scenes - during the late-night stag party and the impromptu shirts-versus-skins basketball match, with the silent Ruckley (James Yarborough) acting as the hoop - and there are plenty of performances to keep you diverted.
Chris White is a commanding presence with a fascinating edge to his voice - it's harsh without being abrasive - and he spits out his cantankerous rants with vigor, and there are smart, incisive portrayals all throughout the show: Jose Rengel, whose Chief Bromden carries with him a lovely, haunting hush; Kelli Carr, enjoying herself enormously as the slutty Sandra; Heather Meyer, sweetly empathetic as Nurse Flinn. (You catch her best moments out of the corner of your eye.)
Director Benson makes fine use of her stage space and, with lighting designer Sarah Nutt, creates some impressive tableaux; the lighting effects would be more effective, though, if they didn't prove more dramatic than the stage action they're meant to accompany. What we have in Playcrafters' One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a perfectly likable bucking-the-system comedy, but we're left unconvinced that this particular system was one in need of bucking.
For tickets, call (309)762-0330.