The iconic images of Jack Nicholson set the tone for one of the most iconic movies of the 1970s – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. What many don’t realize is that the story started as a book by Ken Kesey and then debuted as a Broadway play written by playwright Dale Wasserman.
For Windsor actress and director Niki Richardson, it’s part of her past. She will be directing the new Cardinal Music Productions version of the Tony Award Winning drama at The Green Room Theatre in Windsor on Nov. 29 and 30 and Dec. 1, 6, 7 and 8.
“I saw the movie at a young age (too young for the subject matter!) and was deeply moved by the themes of race, power and mental illness,” Richardson told 519. “It led me to read the original 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, which is written in the first person, namely Chief Bromden. Most people know the story through the eyes of a third person, but the Chief’s story was so compelling. I always wanted to tell it.”
She’ll have some challenges ahead with such an iconic production.
“People hear the title and see Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, et all,” she explained. “Those are incredible performances, permanently captured on film. I do believe, however, that most theatre patrons understand there is more than one way to deliver a line, give a look, make an entrance, and they expect to be surprised and entertained rather than disappointed.”
Kirk Douglas played on Broadway as a charming rogue who contrives to serve a short sentence in an airy mental institution rather than in a prison. This, he learns, was a mistake. He clashes with the head nurse, a fierce martinet. He quickly takes over the yard and accomplishes what the medical profession has been unable to do for twelve years; he makes a presumed deaf and dumb Indian talk. He leads others out of introversion, stages a revolt so that they can see the World Series on television, and arranges a rollicking midnight party with liquor and chippies. For one offense, the head nurse has him submit to shock treatment. The party is too horrid for her and she forces him to submit to a final correction: a frontal lobotomy.
“The themes of power and race are still troubling society today, and we may have improved our understanding of mental health issues, but I don’t believe society has come up with any great solutions regarding the care or stigma of such patients,” Richardson continued. “Just in the last year we had the horrific story of a comatose female, in an institution for years, giving birth! Shockingly, this stuff still occurs in society today. It would be foolish to believe otherwise.”
The subject matter is still poignant and hard hitting.
“There is discomfort for me in the subject matter, but mostly in the sense that I wish the world was different,” she said. “That people could be safe and feel protected and validated in all environments. Talk about a utopian society. This story, however, is fiction. I am not uncomfortable to present my interpretation of this material as it was written.”
The play, much like the movie, handles the subject matter with both comedy and drama.
“I believe the characters are greatly humanized,” Richardson concluded. “I could know any number of them, the patients and the staff. I consider that to be a positive thing. What happens to them is not positive. But, there it is again, good guys lose. A lot.”
“I would say that Dale Wasserman’s script makes it easy. It has a tempo of horror and humor that seems to flow, if that makes sense. The humor comes from a natural place, mostly dialogue and characterization, and takes the edge off some of the terrible things that are happening. There is humor in most situations, even the bad ones, so for this script to be void of it would be unnatural.”
Although One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is an old story, written in 1962, it is still relevant today.
“I think what comes to me from all of these themes is that society needs people to be more tolerant,” Richardson added. “We all have secrets we are keeping, worries we cling to, troubles weighing us down. Science has shown us that there are hard physical reasons why someone may be unable to mentally navigate the normal stresses we all endure, and they deserve assistance and compassion. We all know what it feels like to be misunderstood. Just be kind. To everyone. It costs nothing.”
The Cardinal Music Productions version of the Tony Award Winning drama, directed by Richardson, will be performed at The Green Room Theatre in Windsor on Nov. 29 and 30 and Dec. 1,6,7 and 8. For more, visit cardinalmusicproductions.com.