Battle of wills in 'Cuckoo's Nest' at Laurel Mill

In a change of pace from popular musicals, light comedy and children’s theater, Dale Wasserman’s rarely seen “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” at Laurel Mill Playhouse is almost too much drama for the little theater on Main Street to contain.

Based on American author Ken Kesey’s novel published in 1962, the play appeared on Broadway in New York City in 1963, running for less than 100 performances.

Eight years later, an off-Broadway revival featured Danny DeVito, who reprised his role in the Academy award-winning 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson.

The title comes from the novel’s epigraph, a child’s counting rhyme — “one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” — that is mentioned in the play as a game a mental patient learned from his grandmother.

Cuckoo, of course, refers to a crazy person, and central character Randle McMurphy is the cuckoo who flies over a psych ward in a criticism of 1960s mental health care.

Produced and directed for Laurel audiences by Maureen Rogers and Jen Sizer, respectively, the Playhouse does an admirable job of staging the drama on Main Street.

Sizer has taken care in designing a functional and unique set painted in shades of black and white; she also designed savvy lighting, sound and special effects. And Marge McGugan’s costume design fits the illusion of an authentic mental hospital well.

John Cusamano choreographed the fight scenes and Lori Bruun is stage manager.

The story — seen through the eyes of the (supposedly) deaf and dumb Chief Bromden (played by Adam Garrison), who speaks privately to his deceased Papa about “The Black Machine” — focuses on McMurphy (Stephen M. Deininger), a womanizing gambler who fakes being crazy to avoid going to prison.

But when the boisterous hero lands in the institution that Nurse Ratched (Jane Steffen) rules with an iron fist, their inevitable battle of wills throws the ward into chaos.

As the Chief, Garrison starts the insanity rolling in his opening monologue and is joined by Aides Warren and William (Michael Keating and Brock Brown), who begin taunting the American Indian.

Enter Nurse Ratched (Steffen) and Nurse Flynn (Anne Hull) to dispense the morning medications, and we meet the other crazies who make up the patients’ council.

Timothy Sayles plays their leader, Dale Harding, a well-spoken closet homosexual cowed by his wife and Nurse Ratched into believing he is mentally ill.

Ruckley, catatonic after a lobotomy, is portrayed so realistically by John Cholod that he’s disturbingly painful to look at. As Frank Scanlon, Lenny Dinerman growls profanities and Martini (Terri Laurino) constantly hallucinates and deals an invisible player into card games.

John Swift almost seems normal as the outspoken Cheswick, and Billy Bibbitt (Daniel Johnston), the youngest patient, has just failed an attempted suicide.

Enter Deininger as McMurphy armed with cigarettes, gum, attitude and a penchant for gambling, and the battle begins.

Other members of Sizer’s outstanding cast include: Ann Henry (Nurse), Patrick Pase (Dr. Spivey), Ron Able (Aide Turkle), Nora Zanger (Candy Starr), McGugan (Technician) and Sami Peterson (Sandra).

All deliver excellent performances in a tight ensemble production that offers witty dialogue and great comic relief — such as Able’s performance of Turkle’s “Don’t Go Into the Lion’s Cage Tonight” ditty and McMurphy’s pronunciation of his nemesis’s name as Nurse “Ratshit” — as well as shocking scenes depicting brutal, outdated psychotherapies and even a killing.

Pase is distracted but sincere as Dr. Spivey, and during manic high moments in Act 2, Zanger and Peterson make delightful chippies.

If there can be standouts in such an intense, well-played production, they are McMurphy, Nurse Ratched and Billy Bobbitt.

Deininger is much larger than life as McMurphy and manages to reveal a generous heart beneath his character’s bad boy persona and hypersexuality. Sometimes his volume is overwhelming, but it does keep the audience on edge.

Steffen employs awesome underplay by focusing on Nurse Ratched’s keen intelligence rather than her emotions, a technique that plays beautifully in an intimate space where audience members can see the frightening steel in her eyes.

As Billy Bobbitt, Daniel Johnson captures every nuance of a difficult role in an endearing and heartbreaking performance.

And in a surprising twist at play’s end, someone will finally fly free as a bird.

“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” continues through Sunday, Sept. 30, Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St., with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m.; and matinee performances Sept. 23 (Samanatha Deininger will play Sandra) and 30 at 2 p.m. General admission is $20; students 12 and under and seniors 65 and over, $15. For tickets, go to laurelmillplayhouse.org.

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