RagTag Entertainment’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest electrified its sold-out opening night audience at the Onyx Theatre last weekend. Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel offered a still-relevant journey into a totalitarian state led by a dictator armed with weapons of mass conformity — only in this case, the villain wears a white uniform, softly feathered bangs and is fucking ferocious.
Set in the generic community room of an Oregon psychiatric ward (designed by David Sankuers), the play follows Randle P. McMurphy (Brandon McClenahan), a criminal charged with statutory rape who feigns psychosis to ditch his work-farm prison sentence for what he thinks will be a cushy psych ward.
Surrounded by oddballs and misfits — including Dale Harding (Brian Scott), the erudite prude; Scanlon (Troy Tinker), whose obsession with bombs couldn’t feel more relevant; post-lobotomy Ruckly (Michael Kimm), prone to nailing himself to an invisible cross; Billy Bibbit (Elijah O’Connell), the somewhat inconsistently stuttering virgin; paranoid Martini (Alex Mendoza); and dapper Cheswick (Michael Drake) — McMurphy becomes an unlikely hero, encouraging the motley crew to rise up against Nurse Ratched’s oppressive regime.
As Nurse Ratched, Kim Glover’s naturally warm presence makes her actions all the more evil, playing up her perfectly polished appearance and even-keeled delivery while systematically dismantling and emasculating her wards. The clever, Big Brother-esque staging of the glassed-in nurse’s station at the rear of the theater, combined with Kaili Story’s effective lighting changes, help create shifts in tension that effectively blur the comedic and dramatic lines in the play.
McClenahan captures the infectious charisma of the rabble-rousing McMurphy and is at his best when his goofy, slack-jawed drawl gives way to emotional depth, as the character travels from half-heartedly conning the patients in games of chance to championing them, encouraging them and ultimately becoming one of them.
As the power struggle between Ratched and McMurphy escalates, it’s the surprisingly tender scenes that serve as the play’s pulse, from the exuberance of the patients’ make-believe World Series and makeshift “wedding,” to riveting moments between McMurphy and the presumably catatonic Chief Bromden (Timothy Burris), whose painful emotional narrative serves at the core of the story.
I’ve seen performances of this play sink into claustrophobic chaos under the weight of so many voices, but here, anchored by Sean Critchfield’s adept direction, the cast creates well-defined characters who contribute to the fuller ensemble, making the play a memorable one worth seeing.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., through May 11; Onyx Theatre, 953-16B E. Sahara Avenue (In Commercial Center), www.onyxtheatre.com, $15.