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THEATER : Views From Within : Plays opening at American Renegade Theatre examine psychiatric patients.

June 19, 1992|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

There's great concern in North Hollywood--about mental health. At least there is at American Renegade Theatre, where "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Dale Wasserman's popular drama about injustice in a mental hospital, opens Thursday, and a new dark comedy by first-time playwright Michael Creith, about a writer's tilting with suicide, opens shortly thereafter.

Elizabeth Meads, co-artistic director of Renegade, is directing the Wasserman play, adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey. The production marks her return to directing following a several-year hiatus. Having taken over the reins after the original director departed, Meads says, "it was like everyone was pointing in my direction. This is a great one to jump back in on, a 17-character play with all these special effects."

The first thing she did was reread the original book, which, along with the play, is a different animal than the famous film version, she says, adding, "it fills in so much."

In case theatergoers have trouble displacing the image of Jack Nicholson as the flamboyant McMurphy in the film, Meads explains that the role regains its proper perspective in the play.

"Well, the movie is totally different," Meads says with an emphatic nod of the head, "a separate thing from the book and the play. The character Nicholson played is certainly a force in the play, but in my view Chief Bromden is the major force in the play. And the book was written from the chief's point of view." And the film played down the chief's image in favor of Nicholson's bravura performance.

Bromden's point of view is emphasized in Meads' staging. "It's the basic struggle between an individual and the System. And the System can be all sorts of things, from the government to the insane asylum, to order as opposed to a freer spirit. I keep going back to that, and I think that's what the Native American Bromden represents. He's stuck in this world that's so far away from where his spirit wants to be. It's trying to contain him."

To Meads, that theme is central to the play's message, more so than McMurphy's violent and often funny attempts to wake the patients up, to break through the system that's holding them and keeping them the same, anonymous.

"He comes in and brings laughter and a joy of life," Meads says, "so he's a central character, there's no way around it. But the Native American is just the core of the play."

Meads seems to attract plays about the subject matter. She was walking out of the theater one day and met a bearded gentleman with a script in his hand. He was Michael Creith, and Meads said she would read his play, "Hobo's Lullaby."

The play is about a writer with suicide on his mind, but no one will let him act it out. He has been committed to a hospital for evaluation.

Creith, 43, is a banker and family man who also runs a girls' softball program in Northridge. He has been fighting the writing urge for a long time. He finally found something he had to write about.

"When I turned 40, I went through the things people go through, a really terrible period of depression. The play seemed to pull me out of it."

Creith, who was raised in North Hollywood, recalls people telling him "great truths." One of them, he says, "which you're told growing up, in church or temple, is that suicide is wrong. I started playing with that concept."

Creith's play, "Hobo's Lullaby," is tentatively scheduled to open at American Renegade Theatre's Stage Two within the next week or so.

"It's amazing to go through the experience of having your first play done at my age," Creith says. "And it's healthy."

Where and When

Location: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," American Renegade Theatre, 11305 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays till Aug. 2.

Price: $12.

Call: (818) 763-4430 for reservations.

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