Photos: Cindy Blanchard, Ciann Photography
50 Years Later, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Still Relevant, Thought-Provoking
The classic drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is as powerful today as when the play premiered on Broadway fifty years ago this month. Even though most long-term mental institutions in the U.S. were shut down in the eighties, attitudes about the mentally ill haven’t advanced much, says director Clay Hillwig.
“Mental illness is still prevalent, it’s just not as hidden. We don’t shuttle people off to institutions anymore because of better out-patient options,” says Hillwig. “But this play continues to be relevant because it reminds us that we should be accountable for how the mentally ill are treated.”
Many may know this story from the hit motion picture of the 1970s. But Hillwig says that’s not what audiences should expect to see on stage.
“We are following the script of the playwright, and there’s a huge difference from the movie. It will be obvious from the moment the lights come up.”
The stage play is based on the novel by Ken Kesey, the story of a petty criminal named Randle McMurphy who pretends to be insane to get out of time behind bars and into the easy life at a mental ward. That’s where he finds himself pitted against the controlling and cruel Nurse Ratched, played by Heather Alexander in Circle Players’ production.
“She’s just such an iconic villain that it’s one of those roles you can’t pass up,” says Alexander. She was on my bucket list of roles to play before I die.”
Alexander is a familiar face in local community theater and has performed in several Circle Players’ productions—including previous plays directed by Hillwig. For this role, she digs deep into her dramatic training as well as her personal story: Alexander had a close family member who was institutionalized for many years under circumstances not so different than in the play.
“I dearly hope that no one still exists out there like Nurse Ratched; but one never knows,” says Alexander. “If someone likes to mistreat people… the mentally ill would be easy prey, especially if they’re institutionalized.”
Her castmates do a superb job of conveying the characters’ complicated existence, according to Alexander—especially after the arrival of McMurphy (played by Mitchell Blankman). He brings an unexpected energy, life and joy to the hospital ward. The ensemble of actors manage to balance the serious subject matter with light-hearted moments, blending darkness and humor in a way that will mesmerize audiences.
“Most of the cast are people I have not worked with before, and I love what they’re doing,” says Alexander. “Each one is bringing his or her own idiosyncracies to the characters and being very organic.”
Alexander attributes that to Hillwig’s approach as a director—guiding rather than ordering actors through character development. He also strives for realism. During one rehearsal, Hillwig had the cast meet a retired psychiatric professional who worked for years in various mental institutions before helping to transform mental healthcare from to community-based treatment.
“When he was talking, you could hear a pin drop—the actors were so intrigued,” says Hillwig. “He gave an eye-witness account of what the facilities looked like, smelled like—and also how far we’ve come.”
Hillwig says the talk was also eye-opening about some story lines that he and the performers assumed were evil and barbaric—like electric shock therapy, which is still sometimes used safely and effectively to treat severe depression.
“It just reinforces that the horrible circumstances in the play are not so much about the facility or even some of the treatments, but rather control and abuse of authority,” says Hillwig.