‘Cuckoo’s Nest’: A Gut Punch

It’s a scintillating duo: One of the most iconic of all antiheroes versus the Queen of Evil. Alongside them are the Shy Charmer and enigmatic Silent Giant. Well, in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, anyway. The theater version settles into Manoa Valley Theatre May 14, more authentically mirroring the original book by ‘60s radical Ken Kesey, who’s been dubbed founding father of the decade’s countercultural movement. In his vision, void are neatly drawn Hollywood profiles of a group of asylum inmates and their domineering staff. In their place are darker, more complex characterizations, rich with backstories that reflect the social upheaval of the times. Kesey’s words sim- mer forth from a fervid preoccupation with race and gender relations, drug experimenta- tion and mind expansion, the problematization of psychiatric institutionalization and idealization of the individual standing up against The Man — or against the neutering Nurse (Nurse Ratched, aka Big Nurse), as the case may metaphorically be.

Percolating up from that background, flowing-haired Kava Jones stands in the spot- light, summoning Chief Bromden, the narrator. With endearing sensitivity, he embarks on a “once upon a time” about a group of men in a mental institution, whose world is turned on its head when an untamable wild man arrives and has the guts to balk at the status quo.

“The movie version is McMurphy’s (Jack Nicholson’s character) story, and the Indian is mostly a silent character,” notes Jones. “Native American cultures are orally based, so in the play, Chief Bromden is a storyteller and this is his story about R.P. McMurphy.

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Shannon Winpenny as Nurse Ratched and Kevin Keaveney as R.P.McMurphy PHOTOS BY ERICH STEINWANDT

“Other than Nurse Ratched, Chief Bromden is the eyes and ears of the facility. He’s (socially) invisible and he’s been invisible for a very long time, since he was a child. Nobody really acknowledges him until McMurphy comes in, and Chief is like, ‘What are you doing talking to me? Do you really see me?’”

The supposedly catatonic Chief — all that electric shock therapy, you know — is a hollow vestige of a spirited tribe that once spearfished salmon by a nearby waterfall. Hope for Chief arrives with the men- tal ward’s newest admission, played by Kevin Keaveney.

Keaveney crashes onto the scene as rabble-rousing blowhard R.P. McMurphy, turning Big Nurse’s words against her and luring his fel- low psychopaths on board with a mischievous wink and hellfire streak of ruddy- cheeked recalcitrance. Keaveney’s stature and artistic acuity give us all the shades of an excess-loving McMurphy we are only too eager to jump on board with.

“McMurphy lives by his own rules,” says Keaveney, who first appeared in Cuckoo’ s Nest 30 years ago as comatose inmate Ruckly. “In the book, McMurphy’s got military experience. I think that was about all he could take, and he’s not going to let anyone tell him what he can and can’t do anymore. He’s not a particularly mean per- son, but he’s also not particularly nice. He will exploit any advantage over somebody that he can. It amuses him to do so.”

Keaveney points out that McMurphy does posess redeeming attributes, like his hearty sense of humor, appetite for fun and an abiding loyalty to those he befriends.

“He’s nothing but self-serving,” says Keaveney, “but there’s this connection he has, particularly with Bromden and (soft-spoken, stuttering mama’s boy) Billy, but also with the rest of the inmates, that for whatever reason, he decides there’s something big- ger than his desires that needs to be served.”

In the end, Cuckoo’s Nest is a story of ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. Keaveney shares memorable scenes with Adam LeFebvre as fellow bombast Harding, the intellect-heavy “bull goose loony” of the asylum, a title that McMurphy quickly relieves him of. LeFebvre’s Harding is mighty affable, a man who clearly doesn’t belong in these physical confines. But an effete oddity in regular society, he takes refuge in Big Nurse’s domain will- ingly, submitting whatever manhood he was born with to her psychologically castrating mechanisms. For her part, Shannon Winpenny wears Big Nurse’s pompous sneer splen- didly, embodying the woman who’s a pleasure to hate.

How do you sensibly portray the “bad guy” when none of us sees ourselves as a bad person?

“First of all, it’s really easy to see yourself as bad,” quips Winpenny. “I pride myself on it.”

That’s the whip snap this stage veteran brings to her character, adding on a serious note:

“This is the biggest, most challenging role I have ever had. I have a background in improvisational comedy, so this is a completely different gear. (Taking on one of theater’s most acclaimed female roles), I feel honored, challenged and terrified all at the same time. I try to use all of those feelings and put them into my character, and hope- fully I do it justice.”

As Big Nurse, Winpenny stands on stage in all her starched frigidity, begging to be loathed. And when her meddling causes circum- stances to turn tragically dis- cordant, it’s easy to take her up on the challenge. Her mas- ticating gaze is flung at the
entire cast, from the inept doc- tor on staff, to the timid assis- tant nurse, the tyrannical aides, the night watchman and the rest of the emasculated child- men she’s bent into clockwork obedience.

“What really gets to me is the humanity of the story, the desperation, the heart of it,” says directing associate Bree Kale‘a Peters. “My hope is that people will feel they have seen a really well-told story that moves them and makes them think, which is what the- ater is supposed to do.”

Full disclosure: Amid the heavier matter bubbles up a wellspring of jollity and even some riotous merrymaking. If you’ll peek behind the curtain and put the spotlight on me, the author, for a moment. How serendipitous when someone notices a talent in us that we didn’t know we possessed. It wasn’t the role I tried out for, so thank you to Manoa Valley Theatre for acknowledging my dormant wild woman. Alongside Therese Olival as Candy, I play Sandy the prostitute, and we promise you a party of raucous revelry with McMurphy and the asylum boys.

the TICKET stub
When: May 14-31
Where: Manoa Valley Theatre
Cost: $20-$39
More Info: 988-6131, manoavalleytheatre.com