Published: Friday, February 25, 2011, 5:00 AM Updated: Friday, February 25, 2011, 11:46 AM
“Sometimes our choices end up being strangely like premonitions,” director Rose Riordan says about the timing of the production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” opening Friday at Portland Center Stage. “In the news lately there’ve been all these stories about the Oregon State Hospital and about the criminally insane, the hospital’s being torn down, and there’s a documentary coming out, and all these things going on.
“But that’s just a coincidence.”
The past few weeks have seen headlines about a wrongful-death suit filed against the state hospital, attempts to match old cremated remains with family members of former patients and a legislative attempt to refine the standards on mental-health commitments of criminals.
Mental illness is a hot topic onstage lately as well. Third Rail Rep just concluded its production of Anthony Neilson’s “The Wonderful World of Dissocia,” about the colorful delusions and numbing hospitalization of a woman with a dissociative disorder. Next week, Oregon Children’s Theatre opens “Chamber Music,” a one-act play set in a 1930s insane asylum.
But, no matter the scheduling of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” the show would have pertinence, immediacy. Ken Kesey’s tale of oppression and rebellion within a state mental hospital is an enduring best-seller and “a paradigm of the successful struggle of the individual against at once an oppressive society, his own human weaknesses, and cosmic indifference to his wishes and welfare,” writes M. Gilbert Porter in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Rising to Heroism.”
It’s an American classic, but more than that, it’s a crucial piece of Northwest lore. Kesey took much of his inspiration for the story from a stint as a night-shift psychiatric aide at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital in California. But having grown up in Springfield, he set the book in the Northwest, and it is rife with references to familiar places and kinds of people.
Stepping out of film’s shadow
Published in 1962, Kesey’s novel has been an enduring success, included by Time magazine on its list of the “100 best English-language novels from 1923-2005.” The 1963 stage adaptation by Dale Wasserman ran on Broadway, but it is Milos Forman’s 1975 film — which starred Jack Nicholson as the charismatic hero Randle McMurphy and won five major Academy Awards — that lingers the most in popular memory.
“When I took the play home, all these memories of the movie came rushing through my head,” Riordan recalls. “I saw it once, years ago, and I hadn’t realized what a strong impression it had made on me. There were details of the movie that were still fresh in my head.”
To a much greater extent than when Portland Center Stage created a version of Kesey’s other masterpiece, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” in 2008, putting “Cuckoo’s Nest” on stage requires not just capturing some essential quality of the novel but stepping out of the shadow of the film.
“Now the book is our only reference,” Riordan says. “We haven’t watched the movie, we don’t talk about the movie; I think that’s a slippery slope. The challenge of course is: ‘What are people’s expectations going to be?’ I think if we do our job right, they may have expectations when we start, but I think they will allow us to tell the story.
“I actually feel more confident doing it here in Portland than if it was in a different city. I think more people are going to connect with it because they’ve read the book, as opposed to referencing the movie.”
Four ‘Chronics’ added to cast
The milky-sounding strings of easy-listening music waft through the large, third-floor rehearsal room at the Gerding Theater on a recent afternoon, a purposeful contrast to the orchestrated chaos being acted out. The cast is working on a scene in which McMurphy, a gambler and roustabout who had figured a stay in the mental hospital would be easier than completing his assault sentence on a work farm, is throwing a party. He bribes a guard, sneaks in women and liquor, and tries to show the other patients how to let loose and live.
Riordan stops the actors from time to time, suggesting adjustments to the timing of the lines, the traffic of people and props. She also has a word of general advice about how they approach their characters: “Follow your lesser impulses.”
Stacked benches and sheet-music stands are arranged in a rough facsimile of the nurse’s station, which gets appropriated as a makeshift bar. Several men in pale bluish-green scrubs whoop it up in a kind of awkward revelry. Toward the back of the room, away from the main action, Noel Plemmons tenses and twists his body, sometimes gibbering inaudibly as he makes his way slowly around a gurney.
Plemmons is known around Portland as a dancer, not an actor, but he’s one of four cast members Riordan has added to the 16 called for in the script. The new four are what are known within the story as “Chronics,” those not expected to recover from their debilitated state.
“They’re part of the smell of the hospital,” Riordan says. “But they don’t have a function that’s spelled out in the script. So adding more bodies to the stage has been really complicated.”
Getting the atmosphere of the hospital right might be of particular concern for this production, the aforementioned Oregon State Hospital being where the novel was set (presumably) and the film was shot.
In late January, on the second day of rehearsals, the cast took a rented bus on a field trip to the hospital. Riordan talks of “rolling up to the hospital and trying to imagine, if you were sick, what it would feel like (to arrive there). Would it be comforting? Would it be frightening? I think about it a lot. I guess it would depend on what your Achilles’ heel is. I think I could deal with whatever kind of physical disability. But losing your mind — I can’t imagine the fear that would go along with that.”
The actors weren’t able to observe patients, and the main area where filming had taken place had just been torn down. But PJ Sosko, who plays McMurphy, and Tim Sampson, who plays longtime patient Chief Bromden, were let into an atrium “where that first unshackling scene with Jack Nicholson was filmed — that sent shivers up my spine,” Sosko says.
Sampson had been there before. His father, Will Sampson, played Chief Bromden in the movie, and a few years later brought Tim to see the hospital. “The building’s changed, but the spirit of it is there,” Tim Sampson says.
No doubt he and the rest of the folks at Center Stage are hoping the spirit of Kesey’s novel is there onstage in this “Cuckoo’s Nest.” Sosko, a New Yorker who last performed here as Hank Stamper in “Sometimes a Great Notion,” believes that spirit is especially important — and reachable — here, on the story’s home turf.
“I know that the people coming to see this are excited to see this story come alive for them,” he says. “There’s nowhere else you can do this play where it will have the same kind of effect.”
— Marty Hughley