Tucked away in the mountains at the Massachusetts-New York border, the Berkshire Theatre Festival is a hidden treasure of Northeast regional theater. In the midst of its 79th season, the company mixes lesser-known and experimental works with theatrical standards, such as its current production of Dale Wasserman’s stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which runs through July 28th.
The play and the Ken Kesey novel that inspired it are, of course, no longer what the general public thinks of when they hear the title of this seminal work. That privilege is reserved for Miloš Forman’s 1975 film version. The Festival’s staging, however, emerges from the shadow of that cinematic staple to stand in its own right as a powerful depiction of rebellion in the face of unthinking order.
The capable and assured direction of Festival mainstay Eric Hill brings to life a mental ward of the early 1960s, where the inmates live in fear of the autocratic Nurse Ratched (Linda Hamilton). It is a credit to Hill and his ensemble that this familiar story does not become dull or predictable, even if one knows what is going to happen as felon and con artist Randle P. McMurphy (Jonathan Epstein) arrives and begins to shake up Ratched’s cultivated status quo.
Hill takes advantage of scenic designer Karl Eigsti’s confined playing space to highlight the nature of imprisonment and its effect on McMurphy and his fellow patients. The actors are in constant motion around the stage, ping-ponging from one end or level to another, searching for breaches that do not exist. With McMurphy as a catalyst, the entire ensemble begins to release the emotional and physical energy that this ceaseless activity has created, with results alternately thought-provoking and explosive.
The lead actors, for their part, bring to their roles a novel approach that is vital in escaping the indelible portrayals of Forman’s film. Hamilton, best known to audiences for her depiction of Sarah Connor in the Terminator films, creates a Ratched that is almost kind in her cruelty, truly believing that she is doing right by her patients with her probing of their emotions and tortuous imposition of discipline. Epstein, meanwhile, plays McMurphy as a physical brute, more shrewd than smart, his manic grin and rapid-fire jokes covering for his fear that he may have gotten in over his head.
If there is another tentpole supporting this tragic circus besides Hamilton and Epstein, however, it is most certainly Austin Durant as Chief Bromden, the deaf-mute Native American who, in both the novel and play, narrates events at the asylum. Hill stages these monologues with Durant alone on stage, bathed in otherworldly light as he speaks of the mechanical social conformity he calls “the Combine” over the distant grinding of machines (kudos to J. Hagenbuckle’s evocative sound design). Durant’s chameleonic intensity and depiction of Bromden’s gradual return to agency strike the necessary chord of tension and import. Only recently graduated from college, Durant promises to bring a magnetic presence and abundance of talent to the stage for years to come.
The rest of the ensemble make their presence felt as well. Of particular note is Tommy Schrider as Dale Harding, flamboyant president of the patients’ council. Somewhat less remarkable is Randy Harrison’s (Queer As Folk, Wicked) turn as Billy Bibbit, the stuttering, suicidal neurotic. Harrison brings little that is unexpected to the role of Billy, doing a serviceable job but never probing beneath the text to summon nuance or originality.
Overall, the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a marvelous staging of the piece. A product of its time, it somehow never feels dated. Its message of social discontent and the costs and rewards of freedom are as relevant today as when Kesey put pen to paper forty-five years ago, and Hill and his company have created a powerful reminder of those truths.