pictured, top: Randy Clark as Martini, Scott C. Brown as R.P. McMurphy, and Julie Wensel as Sandy; bottom: Mark Wenzel as Billy Bibbit and Alison Monda as Candy Starr.
For any number of reasons, it must be one of the most difficult of all modern comedy-dramas to produce. For starters, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif and Will Sampson so thoroughly defined the roles of R.P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, Billy Bibbit and Chief Bromden in the 1975 movie that nobody can possibly play those roles without inviting comparisons. Patterning the roles after these actors would be an obvious folly, and yet to play them any other way would risk destroying the characters as Ken Kesey wrote them.
It’s an almost impossible tightrope to walk, but Scott C. Brown as McMurphy, Jenifer Rifenbery as Ratched, Mark Wenzel as Bibbit and Nathan Daniel Hicks as Bromden do it masterfully; they bring these complex and larger-than-life characters to life without making them seem like caricatures of the roles as defined by Nicholson and company. Kudos to all of these fine actors and to director Marcus Walker – and to the fine ensemble cast with terrific work from Michael Sandner, Randy Clark, Jack House, Alison Monda, Joseph Grant and others.
The storyline is familiar to just about everyone. Randle McMurphy is a fun-loving gambler and womanizer in prison for statutory rape. He feigns insanity and is sent to a mental hospital where he becomes the leader of a band of inmates at war with an evil and power-mad head nurse, Nurse Ratched, who is in many ways more insane than some of the inmates, as are two cruel aides: Williams (Samuel Kyles) and Warren (Joseph Kelly).
Like the book by Kesey but unlike the movie version, the play is narrated in an unconventional manner by Chief Bromden, who is catatonic and supposedly deaf and dumb, but who talks at night, when he is all alone, to his deceased “Papa.” This is a character who might easily seem stilted and unrealistic, but in this version, he is utterly believable as a spiritual being who struggles to emerge from his catatonic state. He is also, as written, a giant of a man, and Lakewood Playhouse was fortunate in finding an actor, Hicks, who looks the part and can act as well.
Transitions between sets are beautifully handled by otherworldly lighting by Kris Zetterstrom and eerie music by sound designer Scott Campbell while the chief talks to his Papa and, when necessary, actors quietly move props in slow motion.
Other reasons this play is difficult to produce include the necessity of walking a fine line between caricature and reality in depicting patients in an insane asylum. The director told me that he had consultants from Western State Hospital train them on the unique ticks and speech patterns of specific types of mental illness.
Finally, there is a fight scene that must be handled with the greatest dexterity to come across as real. It was so realistic that I can only hope they make it through the run of the play without injuring any of the actors.
This is a play that is extreme in its emotional impact, ranging from outlandish comedy to painful reality. It will surely leave you exhausted but satisfied. Due to the intensity of subject matter and harsh language, it is not recommended for young children.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 22
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
TICKETS: $20 general, $17 seniors and military, $14 ages 25 and younger, $12 younger than 12
INFORMATION: 253-588-0042, www.lakewoodplayhouse.org