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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Beverly Creasey

This Cuckoo Soars

Reviewed by Beverly Creasey

The movie version swept the Academy Awards, with Jack Nicholson leading the pack as Randall P. McMurphy -- so why would you want to see a stage version of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"?

Because the story is gripping as hell when you're up close and personal...and because the Spiral Stage (a short 20 minutes from Boston) has a dream cast for their rock solid production of Dale Wasserman's sensitive adaptation.

That movie went for the gritty realism of a mental ward, but the play is powerfully symbolic and stylized. As Chief Bromden tells us, "It's the truth...Even if it didn't really happen."

The shocker in revisiting "Cuckoo" is that not a whole lot has changed in the treatment of mental illness. Patients still get shock therapy, and every streetcorner in the city bears witness to the guy with the Stelazine-shuffle or the Thorazine-shakes. And instead of lobotomies, they now perform amygdalotomies.

Spiral does its job well: You will get the creeps watching Big Nurse mete out her very dangerous medicine to the loonies in her care. Director Tom Kelly's production builds nicely toward doom and boasts some fine ensemble work. Sheila Stasack is downright scary as Nurse Rached. Even her back is arched like the proverbial cat, ready to pounce on her charges. Billy Meleady is the spunky, wiry McMurphy --- a real Irish McMurphy; a clever bit of casting! He's so genuinely playful and naive he doesn't see Rached coming.

J. H. Williston as the Chief is the play's spiritual anchor. He gives a performance of such intensity that suffering pours out of his skin like sweat. He doesn't need to speak to convey his pain. The Mutt & Jeff relationship between Chief and McMurphy takes off like gangbusters in Kelly's production.

The play's Marx Brothers-Greek Chorus is led by the hilarious Wesley Taylor as the inmates' neurotic spokesman. George O'Connor has great fun as the twitchy, slightly menacing Cheswick. Bill Dosher gets lots of laughs aided and abetted by his imaginary friends. Mark Wilson gives the pathetic Billy Bibbit a lot of heart. Barbara Allen is as sweet and compassionate as Caroline Lawton is cruel and unfeeling as the two day nurses. Robert Najarian as the ineffectual psychiatrist and Sasha Carrera as the adorable floozy girlfriend McMurphy smuggles in round out a crackerjack cast.

Martin Bridge's ward set, with an enormous glass nurse's station literally looming over the patients, is a metaphor in concrete. Combined with Ben Emerson's incessant din of humming hospital, it sets the stage for the tragedy to come. Kelley's lights take on an eerie nuclear glow. Susie Pancaldo's costumes are amazingly inventive, given that just about everyone sports hospital green or sterile white. Pancaldo dresses each nurse by her personality --- e.g., Rached is starched, high-collared and hemmed below her knee, where Nurse Flynn's uniform is sign-of-the-times miniskirt and low neckline. The little touches in Spiral's "Cuckoo" come across. They add up to a haunting look at madness ... institutional madness.

"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" (till 31 July)
Noble & Greenough School, off Pine Street, DEDHAM

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