Theater Review - Alliance Theatre takes on the "Cuckoo"s Nest"

Stars Neal A. Ghant and Tess Malis Kincaid talk bringing their iconic characters to life

Before "American Horror Story: Asylum," there was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The 1962 novel by Ken Kesey spawned a theatrical adaptation by Dale Wasserman and film starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher in the now iconic roles of R.P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. The film version took home for Oscars Best Picture, Best Actress (Fletcher), Best Actor (Nicholson), and Best Director (Milos Forman), and is regularly included in critics' top 100 lists. Atlanta audiences will have the chance to see the story of patients battling the asylum come to life at the Alliance this fall, with Neal A. Ghant and Tess Malis Kincaid in the starring roles.

For those unfamiliar with the piece, the story centers on McMurphy, a brash, rowdy character who fakes insanity so he can be sent to a 1960s mental institution instead of serving jail time. McMurphy soon comes to realize that the experience is not going to be the brief holiday he expected, as he has to face off against a terrifyingly sadistic warden, Nurse Ratched. He attempts to rally the other patients to take back their lives, but the institution and the accepted forms of therapy at the time are powerful foes.

The Broadway version of the story originally starred Kirk Douglas as McMurphy and was revived by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2000 starring Gary Sinise, including performances on Broadway and in London. These are some intimidating, manly shoes to fill but Ghant feels up to the challenge.

"I feel like the reason why people like certain shows or movies is because of the talent presented to them ... the way someone stands, the way someone looks, the way someone walks, sounds, all of these things play into the unique nature of art," he says. "That's why you can have people constantly doing shows that are classic and people will continue to come back and see them, because that's the jazz, that's the fun, figuring out how this cast is going to present this show."

Whereas in the film version there are a few scenes shot outdoors with the Alliance's production the audience lives inside the asylum the entire time with the actors. This necessarily increases the caged tension of the story, making the audience empathize even further with McMurphy's struggle and as Ghant notes, the language takes center stage. "With the play you only have one or two set pieces, set designs, so a lot of the action has to come through the dialogue," he says.

Kincaid agrees. "There are certain stories that just translate so well to the stage because of that immediacy of the experience with the audience," she says. "You just get the grit of it more."

Ghant spent a few weeks studying the script on his own before the cast began their month of rehearsals, and he was surprised to find the nurturing side of his character. "McMurphy is such a sort of draw-a-line-in-the-sand, caring guy," he says. "People remember the bombastic, clowning, Harlequin-ish nature of the character, but at his core he cares a lot about these guys' humanity. The minute he walks into the ward, he's like, 'this isn't cool,' and he immediately starts reaching out to each one of these guys and giving them their own individualized therapy."

Though the name Nurse Ratched may spark fear in most of us, Kincaid says she has worked to overcome the preconceived notions of the character and find the human side of this notoriously dark role. The cast spoke with psychiatrists and a ward aide to get a real understanding of the experience. "It's fascinating and sad and scary," Kincaid says, noting the play's relevance. "It's important for us to be able to move forward from where we are today to be able to look back in history and see how far we've come."

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