Once more into the 'Cuckoo's Nest'

Los Altos Stage Company offers worthwhile version of the Beat Generation classic

In 1962, Ken Kesey burst into the literary spotlight with the publication of his first novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," a screed against the social conformity of the post-WWII era that also served as an expose of abusive practices in America's mental hospitals.

The book was a critical and popular success, and the following year it hit the Broadway stage in an adaptation by Dale Wasserman. Over the subsequent half-century, Wasserman's play has been a common offering among community and regional theaters, and last weekend had its opening night at Los Altos Stage Company.

There are many wonderful things about the Los Altos production, beginning with the set. Ting-Na Wang's scenic design puts us on a locked men's ward in an Oregon state psychiatric hospital. The large day room provides ample space for everything from group therapy circles to an impromptu basketball game. There is a plexiglass-enclosed nurses' station, as well as exits to the patients' rooms, a doctor's office, a restroom, a janitor's closet, and -- locked behind a pair of heavy wire mesh doors located upstage center -- the main hospital corridor. That all of this fits comfortably and functionally on LASC's snug stage is a minor design miracle.

The institutional feel is heightened by the two-tone walls -- dingy white above and dull turquoise below. It is presumably no accident that the turquoise matches almost precisely the color of the patients' hospital-issue clothing, nor that the staff are dressed exclusively in white, such that the color scheme of the set reinforces the inviolable hierarchy of the hospital.

When we meet the ward's inhabitants, it becomes clear that the turquoise garb carries another message: Though most of these men are self-admitted and could leave the hospital any time they wished, they are in fact permanent fixtures, part and parcel with the architecture.

The seven actors who play these long-term patients are the real stars of LASC's production. Director Jeff Clarke has taken a group of obviously talented actors and turned them into a believable community. Their interactions keep the play humming, and their deceptively simple (but no doubt tightly choreographed) blocking helps to delineate the different activities on the ward.

The stand-out among this group is David Blackburn as Dale Harding, president of the ineffectual Patients' Council. Blackburn is both poignant and funny as a man paralyzed by his own intellect and withering self-awareness.

Drew Benjamin Jones is sympathetic as Billy Bibbit, a young man whose psychological problems clearly trace back to his domineering mother. (This might be a good time to mention that Kesey's novel, culturally important though it may be, is one of the most virulently misogynistic texts of the entire boys-only Beat era. Wasserman's adaptation softens the chauvinism significantly, but it is so deeply woven into the story's foundational assumptions that it cannot be wholly exorcised.)

Joe Antonicelli gives a fun turn as the schizophrenic Martini, though it's hard to tell at times whether he's purposely "throwing away" his scripted lines or throwing in ad libs to keep the group scenes energized. Keith Larson and Aaron Hurley play two of the show's most underwritten characters, Scanlon and Cheswick, and Gary Landis is a looming presence as the lobotomized Ruckly.

And finally, there is James Devreaux Lewis as Chief Bromden, a character freighted with far more undisguised symbolism than any actor should have to carry. Lewis avoids the obvious pitfalls in playing Kesey's noble savage, and he handles the character's frequent delusion-fueled monologues with aplomb. If he can't quite mitigate the awkwardness of a tribal war dance performed by a gaggle of mental patients or the heavy-handed contrivance of the play's ending, it's hardly his fault.

Each of these actors brings intelligence and commitment to his role, and their collective work creates the backdrop for the play's central conflict.

Which brings us to the two iconic central characters of "Cuckoo's Nest": R.P. McMurphy (played here by Robert Sean Campbell) and his nemesis, Nurse Ratched (Heather Skelley).

McMurphy is a quintessential Beat Generation hero (or, depending on your politics, anti-hero). Id-driven and testosterone-fueled, he is an irrepressible, overgrown Huck Finn in open rebellion against the emasculating forces of social conformity. But rather than grant him the freedom of the American road, Kesey seeks to martyr his hero by tossing him into the soul-grinding maw of a mental-health system designed to quarantine and silence nonconformists.

Not every actor would have the guts to follow this character wherever he goes, but Campbell does. From his first moments on the ward, Campbell struts and crows, a free-range rooster among chemically castrated capons. Some of his antics feel forced, but this may be appropriate for a character who has apparently faked mental illness at trial in order to trade five months of hard labor for five "easy" months on a mental ward.

Everything about McMurphy -- his gambling, his profanity, his libido -- is an affront to the ward's overseer: the humorless, exacting, manipulative Nurse Ratched, known to the cowed patients and staff alike as "Big Nurse." The story centers on the battle of wills between these two personalities -- and, by extension, the social forces that they represent.

And this is where the Los Altos production falters. The battle presented on the LASC stage is not an even matchup, and therefore not fully compelling.

Skelley is clearly a competent actress with a reasonable grasp on her character. But her Big Nurse simply isn't big enough. This is a matter not of physical size but of stage presence. Skelley's icy professionalism can't compete with Campbell's over-the-top defiance. A touch more smugness might help, or a more grating therapeutic chirpiness, or even more outright menace.

Without an adequately detestable Ratched, the audience has far too much time to deconstruct Campbell's unsavory McMurphy and not enough reason to root for him. And ultimately, the brutality of their final confrontation feels unearned -- a scripted climax rather than the organic and inexorable result of all that has come before.

The show has other minor flaws -- the stylized electroshock sequence could be clearer, for instance, and we really should hear a key in a lock each time the mesh gates are opened -- but none of them are damning. Viewing Kesey's tale as a fable, one can almost excuse the moments that are more schematic than realistic. And there is more than enough good acting, good direction and good design work to make LASC's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" a worthwhile evening of theater.

What: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Where: 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos

When: Through May 7, Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.

Cost: $18-$36

Info: Go to LASC or call 650-941-0551


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