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South Bend Civic Theatre poses questions with 'Cuckoo's Nest'

The flock gathers around the table in SBCT's Cuckoo's Nest
The flock gathers around the table in SBCT's Cuckoo's Nest
Jon Gilchrist Photography

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest


South Bend Civic Theatre’s home base is a grand building on North Main Street—like a beacon of arts in the heart of the city. Likewise, theatre, as an art form, is a beacon for its audience. For many, attending a production is an artistic vacation from everyday routines, and for others, it invokes a catharsis in the inquisitive minds of the theatre-goers. Primarily, it is sought for entertainment, but occasionally, it can change someone’s life.

SBCT’s production of Dale Wasserman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is both a lighthouse and a bug zapper, but that is only testimony to the depth of this artistic event. Director Terry Farren has cultivated a rich, artistic, educational, and insightful experience that spreads beyond the borders of the stage. After taking your meds at the box office, you cautiously sneak past wandering patients with the assistance ushers, um, nurses, until you are drawn into the intimate space of the Warner Studio Theatre which has been transformed into the communal ward of the evening’s asylum.

The house is set in a thrust arrangement, and Set Designer Jacee Rohlck deliciously serves an institutional off-white paint with simple yet unsympathetic wire-mesh windows, creating a fishbowl environment similar to viewing windows in an operating room…or an execution chamber. The ceiling is low, the space is small, and before the show even begins, that, even without prior knowledge of the novel or film version, there is a sense of foreboding.

Before that feeling is explored, a curtain speech shared a couple tidbits with the full house:

  • Prior to the start of the opening night performance, the entire run had been sold out.
  • Including a performance that was added, which was filled with patrons on the lengthy waiting list.
  • After the performance, there will be a talk back with some of the cast members and two staff members from the Samaritan Counseling Center in South Bend.

And then one more tidbit was overheard among audience members, which added to the sense of foreboding—running time was almost three hours.

With an industrial/mechanical flourish of sound effects (courtesy of Lighting/Sound Designer Matt Davidson), the One Flew crew has taken flight, but they take a little while to reach full speed as the opening lacks urgency and felt like a calculated parade through a pit of tar and mud. The flock of characters are introduced, and right away, dynamics are clear among them. Aide Warren (Matt Allen) and Aide Williams (Clara Ross) add a needed spark to the opening, roughing up the silent Chief Bromden (Kevin Egelsky), but much of the opening sequence is flat—until Randle P. McMurphy is mixed into this crazed nest.

Steven Cole tackles the role of the volatlie McMurphy, and he fills the house with a vigor that makes “three hours” sound a bit bearable. With the gambling, swearing McMurphy in the house “sticking it to the system,” who is in the opposite corner? The correct answer would be Nurse Ratched (Melissa Gard), the head nurse who the inmates—er, patients—are terrified of. However, Ratched’s power is invisible and, for much of the first act, absent, to say it bluntly. Aside from audience intelligence recognizing the dynamic of the patients in regards to Ratched’s accepted authority, there was little exhibited by Ms. Gard that spoke to her delight, abuse, or disgust of her position. She almost seemed indifferent (which is character suicide in the actor’s world of, “make a bold choice and stick with it!”) for the majority of the show, but by the time there was some dimension added to Nurse Ratched, it seems like it was willed from thin air by everyone else’s story arcing through the evening.

By the end of the show, everything was developed, but an audience shouldn’t have to wait until after intermission to really catch the good stuff. If you don’t give them a reason to stay, they may not, and with as long as the production ran, it was no wonder that 85 percent of them chose to pass on the post-show talk back.

As promised, Samaritan Counseling Center was represented by Executive Director Marie Blunt, M. Min., and Clinical Director Tony Garascia, MA, MS, LCSW, NCC. Both commended the actors and the rest of the company on a production that they were (for lack of a better term) committed to, and the few that stayed were engaged in a passionate discussion about mental health, its evolution in the last five decades, stigmas, treatments, and most importantly—community. Garascia shared that when the play was released (1963, after Kesey’s novel in 1962), it was a grand commentary on the treatment (term used loosely) of mental health patients back then, and that it was part of a movement that “led to the development of community mental health.”

Ms. Blunt echoed that, “The play is about more than mental health,” and she is absolutely right. However, even forty-plus years later, with all the progress that has been made in regards to mental health, treatment of patients, and awareness, there is still much more to be learned, especially with hundreds of PTSD-diagnosed patients separating from the military each year. So with a play like Cuckoo’s Nest, it serves as a lighthouse to those that may not have been aware of how mental health has evolved, but it could also be the discouraging (if not fatal) bug light to those that need therapy. This play is highly relevant today, but it should come with an asterisk or footnote that leaves an open door to those that could use a community to welcome them.

Rating: 3 out of 5 masks.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Dale Wasserman, adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey, directed by Terry Farren, is presented in the Warner Studio Theatre at 403 N. Main Street in South Bend. As mentioned, the run is sold out. Call 574-234-1112 to be put on a waiting list. For additional details, visit the South Bend Civic Theatre website here.


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