Neal Ghant and Tess Kincaid in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Neal Ghant and Tess Malis Kincaid in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

By Manning Harris

The Alliance Theatre is providing Atlanta with the season’s first must-see drama, Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” dramatized by Dale Wasserman; it’s only running through Sept. 20, so if you want to see it, make haste, as my grandmother used to say.

Why so short a run? Possibly the large and very talented cast (the best since Alliance’s “August: Osage County,” also finely directed by Susan V. Booth) has other commitments; possibly because a play must run three weeks to qualify for the Suzi Bass Awards. Who knows? I do know that “Cuckoo’s Nest” is an almost overpowering piece of work.

You’re probably familiar with the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, in the pivotal roles of Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, which won the “Big 5” Oscars: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenwriter. Only two other movies have ever done this: the 1934 comedy “It Happened One Night” and 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.”

For those of us who are Atlanta theatregoers of a certain age, there was an astonishing live production of “Cuckoo’s Nest” at the now defunct Peachtree Playhouse in March of 1974 directed by Jim Way, featuring the late Anne Haney as Ratched; Ms. Haney then did films and TV. This was before the movie; so I knew how very powerful the play was and had high expectations at the Alliance.

I was not disappointed. Ms. Booth has said this play is undoable without a stellar cast, so she has lain in wait to get not only two superb leads (Neal Ghant and Tess Malis Kincaid) but a supporting cast so strong as to be hypnotic all by themselves.

You may know the novel was written in the explosive decade of the 1960’s, when authority of all kinds was being questioned and the status quo and following the rules were often the enemy. McMurphy (Ghant) finds himself in a psychiatric hospital (modeled after the Oregon State Insane Asylum—that’s what it used to be called) because he wants to avoid a six months prison term. He has not bargained on the implacable, steel-willed Nurse Ratched (Kincaid), who views the inmates, uh, patients as her personal wards, over whom she has almost total authority. Even the ward’s Dr. Spivey (David de Vries) seems intimidated by her.

The patients, played by some of the city’s best actors, are mesmerizing, full of physical tics and personality oddities; they are eminently watchable. Chief Bromden (Jeremy Proulx) is a huge man with a large heart; he gives short monologues occasionally and for me is the play’s conscience. He bonds powerfully and movingly with McMurphy. When Bromden says to McMurphy, “I’m not big enough; make me big again,” I just about lost it.

Billy Bibbit (Eric Mendenhall) has a mother fixation which in her rather sick and self-deluding way Nurse Ratched tries to mend. Mr. Mendenhall has a scene near the end which may break your heart.

Both Billy and Chief Bromden make a compelling statement on the human condition and the limitations we place on ourselves. So you see the play is bigger than just McMurphy and Ratched.

McMurphy joyfully defies every rule he can think of and tries to make the patients see who they can be. What he doesn’t know is that the Nurse is a ticking time bomb; when he gets the doctor on his side on one occasion, Ratched is inwardly seething. But she doesn’t show it; she rarely raises her voice, reminding one a bit of Meryl Streep’s Miranda in “The Devil’s Wears Prada.” But this is no comedy, though the play has some wonderful comedic moments, such as the Act II opening of the patients playing basketball in their underwear.

Part of the “therapy” in the institution includes electroshock treatment, and even a lobotomy, should it be deemed necessary.

Todd’s Rosenthal’s set is perfection; it is sterile and foreboding, especially at night.

I must mention the actors who help make “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” a work of what I’ll call total theatre. Andrew Benatar, wonderful as a self-deceiving intellectual who wants to believe that Ratched is an “angel of mercy”; Richard Garner, Ann Marie Gideon, Terry Guest, Tonia Jackson, Chris Kayser, Joe Knezevich, Bethany Anne Lind, Anthony P. Rodriguez, Daniel Triandiflou, and Scott Warren, besides those already mentioned.

Neal Ghant turns a new page in his career with his McMurphy; I’ve seen this actor in numerous roles (usually at the late Georgia Shakespeare), but here he reveals a sparkling, incendiary life force that is riveting.

Tess Malis Kincaid is brilliant and terrifying as Nurse Ratched; to me this role is scarier than Hannibal Lecter because Ratched honestly thinks, in her authoritarian way, she’s doing the right thing. Dr. Lecter knew he was being “naughty,” and thought it was fun. Ms. Kincaid’s supremely beneficent ministrations to her patients are “for their own good,” except possibly the last one. I think it’s her best role since Barbara in “August: Osage County.”

To see this many actors onstage utterly committed to this powerful work is a thrilling thing.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.