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‘Cuckoo’ at Civic

Thu., Jan. 8, 2009, 12:01 a.m.

Kesey novel-turned-Wasserman play hits stage Friday

Most people have wondered, at one time or another, whether the “crazy” people are more sane than “normal” people. Few works of fiction have explored this idea more successfully than “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Ken Kesey’s 1962 story pulled off the artistic hat trick: It was a legendary novel, an Oscar-winning movie and a Tony-winning play, adapted by Dale Wasserman.

Starting Friday, the Spokane Civic Theatre takes on the Wasserman version in a Main Stage production. Once again, it will be the inmates, including Randle McMurphy and Chief Bromden, attempting to take control of the asylum.

The play, which hit Broadway in 1963, contributed significantly to the legend of “Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The novel had been out only a year and was a cult hit; this production raised the book’s profile through sheer star power. Kirk Douglas played Randle McMurphy, Ed Ames played Chief Bromden and a young Gene Wilder played Billy Bibbitt.

Kesey’s novel, with its distinct anti-authoritarian themes (patients downtrodden by tyrannical nurses), became required reading throughout the countercultural 1960s. It was especially beloved in the Northwest; Kesey was from Oregon and based the story in a place that loosely resembled an asylum in Pendleton.

Then, in 1975, the story entered mainstream popular culture with director Milos Forman’s brilliant film version (shot partly in Salem.) It proved to be an enormous audience-pleaser, partly because of Kesey’s story, and partly because of brilliant casting.

Jack Nicholson played McMurphy with perfect wise-guy sarcasm and Louise Fletcher was the tight-lipped, autocratic nurse. They were rewarded with Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars.

It was part of a “Cuckoo” sweep: Forman won for Best Director, the writers won for Best Adaptation and the movie won Best Picture.

The supporting cast was equally brilliant. Not everyone remembers, but this cast also included such great character actors as Danny DeVito, Scatman Crothers, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif.

In 2001, the stage version had a high-profile Broadway revival by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, with Gary Sinise (“Forrest Gump”) as McMurphy. It won a Tony for Best Play Revival.

“It painstakingly restores the fable-like schematic simplicity of Mr. Wasserman’s script, an aspect largely erased from Milos Forman’s much-awarded film,” theater critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote about that 2001 revival.

Brantley noted that the script provides plenty of opportunities for stage antics, including “guys playing basketball in their underwear, a pharmaceutical cocktail party, electric shock treatments and plenty of brawls with rigid authority figures.”

The Civic’s version will feature George Green as McMurphy, William R. Lund as Chief Bromden, Chasity Kohlman as Nurse Ratched, Paul Villabrille as Billy Bibbitt, and Thomas Heppler as Dale Harding.

The director is Yvonne A.K. Johnson, the Civic’s managing artistic director.

Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or by e-mail at

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