Set in a mental hospital in the 1960s, the Theatre VCU adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” celebrates the individual and questions the man with witty jokes filled in between.
The characters in the play are divided into their own social groups. There are the “acutes,” patients who have a chance to be cured, and then there are the “chronics,” patients who will never be cured. Caring for the patients is an authoritative nurse, played by assistant professor of voice and speech Susan Schuld, who has shock therapy at her disposal. The newest addition to the group is a mischievous criminal who quickly stirs up trouble.
Ed Herendeen, producing director for the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, is the guest director for the production. Herendeen said when approaching this play, he asked himself how the play’s setting relates to current society. First, he analyzed the relationship of mental institutions in the past and the current treatment of mental health today. On a larger level, Herendeen said he compared the culture of revolution and rebellion in the past to today’s culture.
“I think it’s great to visit a time in history when Ken Kesey, who was very distrustful of the government, was writing a play set in a mental institution,” Herendeen said. “The (institution) is a microcosm for society at large.”
Narrated by the half-Native American patient, “Chief” Bromden played by associate professor of acting and directing Barry Bell, the play centers around Randle Patrick McMurphy. McMurphy goes to the hospital to avoid jail time, but he quickly stirs up trouble with the head nurse, Mildred Ratched. Inside the institution, McMurphy quickly realizes the patients are being mistreated and unites them to stand up for their individual rights. Senior theatre major James Murphy plays McMurphy and said the character becomes a Christ-like figure.
“He does sacrifice himself to help the people he falls in love with,” Murphy said. “Even though in the beginning of the play, he has no connection with them. He has no reason to help these people.”
To prepare for the role, Murphy said he read the novel multiple times during winter break. He also looked at images of older mental institutions and imagined what life would be like in the 1960s.
“I came in to the read-through and tried to give Ed as real of a reading as I could,” Murphy said. “From there it was a collaborative process to bring more spice and accuracy to the character.”
The production with VCU Theatre is the first time Herendeen has directed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Herendeen saw the film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson when he was younger, but he decided to try and push the film out of his head and reread the novel. As a director, Herendeen said his role was putting the story first.
“Ideas are powerful, but stories are more powerful,” Herendeen said. “My role is blending diverse art forms … into an organic hole, for the purpose of telling a really great story.”
There are 94 people involved in the entire production. Designers and stage managers have been working with Herendeen since November, and the cast has been in rehearsal since Jan. 7.
Murphy said the audience will identify with the patients. Herendeen said part of the fun for the actors participating in this play was figuring out how different illnesses could be portrayed.
“They’re having a great time making choices, like, who’s in a wheelchair, who’s a vegetable, who’s a walker, a chronic, an acute,” Herendeen said.
Since its publication in 1962, the novel has been challenged and banned from school libraries across the nation. One resident of Strongsville, Ohio sued the local Board of Education in 1974 and stated the book “has a tendency to corrupt juveniles.” Herendeen said the play might make some people angry, but he said he hopes audience members will leave questioning how they live their everyday lives.
“We’re about getting the audience to wake up, pay attention, go home and have a living conversation,” Herendeen said. “Hopefully we will see that art can make the kind of noise that can change the world.”
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” premieres Feb. 13 at the Raymond Hodges Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for VCU students cost $10. General admission tickets cost $25. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online. The play will run Feb. 13-15 and 20-22 at 7:30 p.m. On Feb. 16 and 23, the play will run at 3 p.m.