A theatrical “revival” is a chance for actors to renew the vigor of plays that perhaps have seen their better days in past decades. Sometimes an older production is made current and relevant to modern audiences, as is the case with some Shakespearean productions. At other times, a director simply knows that a great production has some relevance to current times. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, now playing at the Round House Theater in Bethesda, Maryland, is one such production. The play provides subtle commentary on the American mental health system, corrections, and every person’s need for order and control of oneself, one’s environment, and one’s carnal desires.
Of the many themes the play suggests, the most prominent is the oft shared experience we have all had at one time or another in trying to resolve one conflict and winding up developing other challenges. We work so hard at trying to solve one problem that we unconsciously propel ourselves toward another. One Bible scripture asks, “What profiteth a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?”* Time and again, we see this theme played out in each character, and in each instance, we want to take them by the hand and show them a better way to ending their frustration.
The play chronicles the institutional life of McMurphy, a recently sentenced convict who pleas insanity for a small crime to avoid time in prison. When he arrives at the mental hospital, he uses his dominant, but friendly personality to win the favor and admiration of other patients in the ward. He succeeds, but only at the cost of undermining the equally dominant head nurse, Ms. Rachet, and her staff. Even as McMurphy’s conflicts with the head nurse rise, e nonetheless affects his ward mates profoundly, helping them find, even if for a fleeting moment, their own cure to their mental afflictions. What they suffer from most is fear—-fear of death, love, sex, unacceptance, and perhaps loneliness. Moreover, ironically, as McMurphy helps these men learn not to fear life, and instead enjoy it, he is the only man not receiving a cure. His hospital stay and his need for control begins as a game but quickly turns into an obsession, and then defeat, once he realizes that of all the players on the ward, he is the only one with the biggest bet to lose.
The Round House Theater has assembled a stellar cast for this production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Rising star Matthew Detmer plays Randall P. McMurphy with unparalleled energy and force, a performance enviable by even the greatest actors who have played the role before. Other supporting cast members, from Michael Nichols, who plays the towering, uncertain Chief Bromden, to Kathryn Kelly, the ward enforcing Nurse Ratchet, all make Cuckoo’s Nest one of the best revival performances in town. Playwright and actress Jjana Valentiner (Funeral Potatoes) also plays two roles as Sandra, one of McMurphy’s high-energy, fun-loving acquaintances, and Nurse Flinn, a ward staffer.
Also, although most theater-goers bypass their attention to a production to focus on the actors themselves and what happens on the stage, every now and then a set design garners attention. On the night of the show, as I sat in the audience before the start of the play, my companion commented on the set and noted how realistic it looked. Set designer Daniel Conway, not surprisingly, is a winner of the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Set Design, and it shows.
Conveniently located just two blocks from the Bethesda Metro (red line), the Round House Theater in Bethesda currently offers a 2-ticket limit on discounted $10 tickets to audiences under age 30 for each performance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s really a steal of a price to see these Broadway-worthy performances. On Sunday, April 12, 2009 and Sunday, April 19, 2009, the cast will join audiences after the show to answer questions. One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest runs through April 26, 2009.