REVIEW: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Gift Theatre)

Crazy good, but not great

The Gift Theatre presents:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
by Dale Wasserman
based on the novel by Ken Kesey
directed by John Kelly Connolly
at Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through May 9th (more info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

“Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

      -American children’s folk rhyme

Less than fifty years ago, lobotomies and electroshock treatments were still the accepted prescription to cure mental illness. The Gift Theatre presents One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a play based on the multiple Academy Award-Winning film version of the novel of the same name, by Ken Kesey. Set in 1959, the story takes place in a psychiatric institution. The patients, orderlies and even doctors are under the self-appointed supervision of Nurse Ratched. Through ‘therapeutic’ humiliation, Nurse Ratched manipulates her fiefdom into disciplined obedience. Her tranquility is threatened upon the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy. Trying to avoid hard labor on a work farm, McMurphy opts for the loony bin to serve his remaining five month sentence. Although McMurphy is non-compliant with authority issues, he’s not crazy. It’s Ratched vs McMurphy for control of the psychos. Seeing the Gift Theatre’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a voluntary commitment to witness the true madness of corrupt authority in a healing profession.

The Gift Theatre has this Grotowski quote on their home page:

Acting is a particularly thankless art. It dies with the actor.
Nothing survives him but the reviews, which do not usually do
him justice anyway, whether he is good or bad. So the only
source of satisfaction left to him is the audience’s reaction. The
actor, in this special process of discipline and self-sacrifice,
self-penetration and molding, is not afraid to go beyond all
normally acceptable limits.  The actor makes a total gift of himself.

                –Jerzy Grotowski “Towards a Poor Theatre”

It’s a powerful statement to the life of a stage actor. Movie actors have it a little easier. Their legacy is preserved in film… forever. Unfortunately and fortunately, it’s the Academy Award-Winning performances of Jack Nicholson (McMurphy) and Louise Fletcher (Ratched) that haunt this stage version. Both Paul D’Addario (McMurphy) and Alexandra Main (Ratched) play it safe – following suit to the film depiction of their roles. It’s not wrong, but it just isn’t quite right. To quote Nurse Ratched, D’Addario and Main are “just fine.”

CUCKOOS#3 This show really belongs to the supporting crazies. Jay Worthington (Billy Bibbit) is a standout as a stuttering, vulnerable mama’s boy. Different from the film version of his character, Kent L. Joseph (Chief Bromden) narrates the crazy practices of the hospital in disturbing monologues. His ability to ball up his massive frame into a defenseless pile is amazing. David Fink (Martini) is hilarious in his delusional state. Guy Massey (Harding) is frighteningly sane as a crazy patient. With no real lines, Adam Rosowicz (Ruckly) delivers a memorable performance with inhumane sounds and physicality.

This cast is huge. The stage is small. Under the direction of John Kelly Connolly, the ensemble set up and break down chairs an insane amount of times. This stage “clean-up” throws off the pacing slightly and the scene transitions are clunky. The set, designed by Ian Zywica , is institutional, right down to the green “mental ward” paint choice. Kate Murphy designed the costumes which are a wonderful combo of old school nurses’ uniforms, 50’s cocktail dresses and pajama party. Whether it was Murphy’s or the actor’s decision, I loved Norman H. Tobin (Scanlon) appearing throughout the show with only one slipper on. Come on…that’s crazy!

Overall, this production tends to basically be a live version of the 1970’s movie, which makes it an entertaining gift available to be unwrapped through May 9th.


Rating: ★★½



Running time: two hours and forty five minutes includes fifteen minute intermission and delayed start.  

3 WORDS: Rebelling against theatre authority by moving his seat for more room, Bill describes the show as “good not great”


Since we were heading for Jefferson Park, we decided to experience local culture with The Gift Theatre’s website recommendation. We dined at Gale Street Inn, 4914 N. Milwaukee. Arriving at 6pm, the place was already enjoying a crowd with their early bird $14.95 special for orders prior to 5:30. We score a booth in the bar area, a preferred location to the family friendly dining room. Gale Street Inn is infamous for ribs. I’m madly insane for barbecue but gnawing on bones makes me feel cannibalistic. Bill and I decide to risk it and split the full rack which comes with salad and a side for $20.95. We supplement with an extra dinner salad dressed with the house sweet balsamic. The salad is not-so-exciting iceberg lettuce and cabbage shreddings. The ribs, however, are crazy fantastic! Tender meat easily releases from the bone so no unattractive bone nibbling required. Dripping with BBQ, we look like a couple of loons before we head over to receive our gift from the acting troop down the street.

10 Responses

  1. I’m pretty sure this play was written several years before the movie.

  2. You’re absolutely right…

    The 1964 Broadway production starred Kirk Douglas as McMurphy, Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit, and Ed Ames as Chief Bromden. Douglas retained the rights to make a movie version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for a decade, but was unable to find a studio willing to make it with him. Eventually, he gave the rights to his son Michael Douglas, who succeeded in getting the movie produced. At that time, Kirk Douglas was deemed too old for the role of McMurphy, and the role was given to Jack Nicholson.

    • thanks Katy for the info.  I had no idea that the parts were played by those amazing actors when on Broadway!  ver interesting!

  3. Legend has it that the Douglas family had a bit of a falling out over Michael’s decision. Drama is never contained to just the stage!

  4. “haunted” by the past performances? i must agree – but what an ambitious undertaking, knowing they would be compared to a role jack made his own.

  5. There was a falling out with Kesey as well, who wanted nothing to do with the movie, because it completly changed focus from the book. The Chief is the primary character in the book – it’s his story. The film made it all about McMurphy, and relegated the Chief fo a bit character role.

    • that would be a cool re-write – turning the show back to the Indian as the main character.  Of course, one would never get the rights to make a new play based on the book.  Too bad…

      • The play is more true to the book than the movie. I saw the show this weekend at the Gift Theatre, and Wasserman’s book takes very few liberties with Kesey’s story and although McMurphy has the lion’s share of the dialogue, it’s definitely the Chief that ultimately fights, and wins, against “the machine.”

        The movie, although good, turned the tale into a star-vehicle for Nicholson, and diminished the Chief’s role, thus changing the moral of the story. No wonder Ken Kesey hated it.

        If you get a chance; see this excellently performed production. Joseph as the Chief is nothing short of amazing, D’addario and Main make those two iconic parts their own, and Massey’s performance as Dale Harding is truly masterful. I’m going back for seconds with some friends.

  6. Just want to share with you the world’s biggest theater showcase that is happening in my beautiful Colombia. Hope you get a chence to check it out You cuould be there next time!
    Regards, Marcela

  7. […] recently their 2010 season included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (review ★★½), Suicide, Incorporated (review ★★★), The Lonesome West (review ★★★) – […]

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