Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Crazy for drama: Play examines reality, insanity

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

For a play about insanity, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has a lot to say about reality.

The story is set in an insane asylum in the 1960s, where patients struggling with mental illness are subjected to the abusive power of their caretakers, as well as the “treatments” that are supposed to make them better — like electroshock therapy and frontal lobotomies.

“Having grown up in the ’60s, the show for me really epitomized the whole struggle between the establishment and the forces for change that were going on during the ’60s, really at all levels,” said Ken Duff, who is co-directing the play with Ann Shirnberg for the Kenai Performers.

Duff, who directed “Bus Stop” for the Kenai Performers two years ago, said he wanted to do “Cuckoo’s” because he enjoyed the book the script is based on, and saw a lot of relevance in the story. His background in social work, as the executive director of Frontier Community Services, lent him firsthand knowledge of a lot of the themes explored in the play.

“I just loved the Ken Kesey book,” he said. “That, coupled with having grown up in the ’60s, and I actually worked at a similar-type facility in Kentucky. … It was part of my history.”

Duff said he sees what happens in the asylum, with new patient McMurphy warring against the power structure of Nurse Ratched, as a microcosm of the turmoil of the 1960s, as the United States moved from the “Leave It To Beaver” era of the 1950s to the upheaval of Vietnam.

Chief, a largely silent Native American patient whom McMurphy befriends, delivers monologues that narrate the story and sum up the inherent conflict of the play, Duff said.
“Throughout the entire show he delivers these monologues that really define what’s going on in the asylum, but on a broader context, what’s going on in society at that time,” Duff said.

“In today’s society I think we look at a show like this and say, ‘You know, that’s just fiction.’ Well, it wasn’t. That’s exactly what was going on in our mental hospitals at the time. … It’s grounded in the reality of what was going on at the time and how people in authority were able to have just incredibly abusive behavior.”

The play has a large cast, with more than 10 actors playing the patients and staff of the asylum. It’s been an interesting rehearsal process getting the actors to understand and embrace their characters — a tall order since the characters are, well, crazy.

“It’s coming together really nicely,’ Duff said. “Even those with fewer lines, they’ve developed this wonderful character for their particular part. They’ve just each kind of taken their own particular role in it and made it themselves, and it’s been beautiful to watch.”

Allen Auxier plays the Chief, with Jamie Nelson as McMurphy and Terri Zopf-Schoessler as Nurse Ratched.

“Those two just play off each other wonderfully,” Duff said.

Feeding off the atmosphere that’s created when everyone onstage is into his or her characters has been the best part of the show, Nelson said. And the depth of the relationships between the patients was a pleasant surprise, since that isn’t played out in the movie version of the book.

“When I was reading the script I saw a little more camaraderie than I did in the movie, so I really liked the relationships that there are in the stage play,” Nelson said. “The movie’s so much about the craziness in the story arc, you don’t really think of the touching relationships in there. That’s what I’ve really tried to focus on bringing out.”

Nelson took the role anticipating it would be a new experience for him.

“I really enjoyed working with Ken in ‘Bus Stop.’ I knew this would be a challenging character that was different than the other roles I’d done before,” he said.

It has been challenging, but rewarding, as well.

“(McMurphy) has a lot more energy than I ever have in my own life, so that has been fun. He has a lot more passion than most people come across.” Nelson said.

There are funny moments in the play, and intense ones as the drama plays out. Duff hopes audiences will be swept along by the story, and the comment it makes on society.

“I think the audience will be entertained by (the funny moments),” Duff said. “My hope is they leave with this really poignant understanding of how power can be abused, … and this glimmer of, you know, some of the good guys got away. “

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” will be performed at 7 p.m. Oct. 24, 25 and 31, and Nov. 1, 7 and 8, and 3 p.m. Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 at the Old Town Playhouse in Kenai. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors and kids. The show is PG-13 and not recommended for kids under 13.

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