HUNTINGTON BEACH — Golden West College captures, however bumpily, the essence of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"--the individual versus an authoritarian establishment, against a backdrop of lunacy where few of the usual assumptions and attitudes apply.
Dale Wasserman's 1963 play, based on Ken Kesey's extraordinary novel, sets up this struggle of identities--embodied in the defiant Randle P. McMurphy and repressive Nurse Ratched--in one wing of a nameless mental institution. McMurphy, sane but trying to get out of a prison work gang, is placed in the hospital for observation; Nurse Ratched, the sadistic overseer of her ward, does the observing.
As anyone who knows "Cuckoo" (most of us are probably familiar with the movie version in which Jack Nicholson virtually created McMurphy) can tell you, Nurse Ratched does more than just that. Through her, the patients are kept in rigid place, even devastated beyond their illnesses.
McMurphy is the savior, sent from the real world to bring liberation. He thinks that it will be easy, but he doesn't understand the environment, its rules. It's a losing proposition because Nurse Ratched holds the cards, but he's never less than game.
To William H. Waxman's credit, he stays pretty clear of giving us a Nicholson impression, although his staccato laugh does have that crazed edge. What Waxman does right is present McMurphy as the simplest of cons, not even that smart but with a clear idea of what's right and wrong.
McMurphy is a leader because of that directness, and it's believable that all these confused men gravitate to him for guidance.
As his nemesis, Laura Mitchell correctly holds back, making Nurse Ratched a tightly corseted manipulator who's one step ahead of everybody else but rarely shows it. Mitchell should get rid of that triumphant smirk, though, at the play's end when she's destroyed all opposition. She's overselling the point.
Director Stewart Rogers commits the usual mistake in approaching the band of merry nuts McMurphy now leads. As with other productions (and even in the movie, though to a lesser degree), the inmates are often treated like caricatures, used as much for comic purposes as anything else. They can be like Smurfs on Thorazine.
There are exceptions, however. Gregory Allen Harris excels as the stammering Billy Bibbit, giving him layers of humanity, and Dennis Jude Deja's Harding is a preening but abject characterization.
'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST'
A Golden West College production of Dale Wasserman's play. Directed by Stewart Rogers. With Tommy Skok, Sam Perricone, Garret Mathany, Laura Mitchell, Lisa Norro, Dennis Jude Deja, Gregory Allen Harris, Jeffrey Glover, Frank E. Carrera III, Timothy Morrell, Kevin A. Diehm, William H. Waxman, Daniel A. Pankratz, Kirk Durand Brown, Kayce Harding, Christy Craven, Laura Caron. Set and lighting by Arpad PetrassCQ. Sound by David B. Edwards. Costume by Robin Whitney. Makeup by Daren Stagg Dvorak. Plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. through Nov. 19 at the Mainstage theater, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach. Tickets: $5 to $7. (714) 895-8378.