You might be a little cuckoo if you aren’t a fan of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The 1962 novel by Ken Kesey is an American classic, appearing on many lists of top English language books, and the 1975 film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson, won all of the Big Five academy awards that year. And Dale Wasserman produced a popular stage adaptation, which has not been produced professionally in Pittsburgh for more than 20 years.
That will change this Thursday, April 21 at 8 p.m. at the New Hazlett Theater, when barebones productions presents One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Melissa Martin, running through May 7.
“I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because it’s a play that is specifically of its period. It’s also a closer adaptation of the novel than the movie,” says Martin. “The story is about the individual in a closed society, under an oppressive regime…No matter what politics a person has, they often feel like they are the individual against the machine … that’s what this is all about.”
Randle Patrick McMurphy is the rebellious hero in Cuckoo’s Nest. He arrives at a psychiatric hospital after being convicted of a crime because he faked insanity to avoid serving his sentence on a work-farm. Fellow patient Chief Bromden narrates the tale of how McMurphy antagonizes the ward staff, in particular the militant head nurse, Nurse Ratched, and leads his fellow patients into open rebellion. It sounds very serious, but Martin emphasizes that the play is also incredibly funny.
Originally from Chicago, Martin moved to Pittsburgh to attend graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University, and she moved to Mt. Lebanon later, when she was looking for a place to raise her kids. “Pittsburgh is definitely my home in a way that Chicago wasn’t … but it was an interesting transition when I moved here,” says Martin. “On our first night in our home [on Kenmont Avenue], I woke up about 65 times because it was so quiet. It felt like I was on a farm.” All three of her children went to school in Mt. Lebanon, and her youngest will graduate from Mt. Lebanon High School this year.
The significance of the fact that the stage adaptation of Cuckoo’s Nest is a close representation of the novel is not lost on Martin, who is a writer. “I studied acting as an undergrad. I imagined I could play Lady Macbeth, but then I found out that that was laughable because I was only 19,” says Martin. “So I started writing parts that I could play, and that turned into directing and producing. It was the natural evolution of the story I wanted to tell.”
Her work as a producer/writer/director of The Bread, My Sweet, an independent film shot mainly in the Strip District, won multiple awards, was screened at more than 20 film festivals and was released in theaters nationwide. Martin’s other writing successes include a web series called Dog Bites and a short film called Flour Baby, both of which were also featured at film festivals around the world.
“What I like about working with barebones productions is that it’s script-driven,” says Martin, who now teaches graduate screenwriting and Acting for Management at CMU. “You aren’t going to come here to see some concept imposed upon a production … I love the idea, because directing then becomes a means to an end. Directing is a conduit. It’s the shortest cut from the script to the audience. Which is why barebones’ philosophy interests me.”
This is not Martin’s first time directing for barebones productions. Her other directing credits there include A Streetcar Named Desire, Glengarry Glenn Ross, Frozen and A Steady Rain, which earned a place in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Top 10 Plays in 2014.
What sets Cuckoo’s Nest apart from those other productions is the fact that this is the company’s largest cast to date. “There are eight million people on stage at one time … OK, maybe it’s more like 16. There are so many bodies to move around on stage. It’s a director’s nightmare,” says Martin. “It’s so much fun because there is all this energy from the people in the room, and focusing that energy is great when you do it. But if you don’t, it’s like a battle of monkeys. Someone is standing on their head in the corner, someone’s in the other corner playing basketball … it can be chaos.”
The cast of actors includes Patrick Jordan, barebones productions’ Artistic Director, as McMurphy, Kimberly Parker Green as Nurse Ratched and Leandro Cano as Chief Bromden. “It’s a real powerhouse cast,” says Martin. “There are so many fascinating characters, played by older actors as well as a host of young people who I am meeting for the first time. It’s a really interesting mix of generations of people.”
For Martin, her experience directing Cuckoo’s Nest has been overwhelmingly positive, but she believes one of the greatest appeals of the show is its overall message. “To tell this particular story, I always think about the Beat Generation and the group of American writers who are looking at American society for the first time in a different way,” says Martin. “[Kesey] was exploring what different levels of consciousness meant. He was looking at sane vs. insane. How much of being sane has to do with social constructs? It’s a fascinating concept—the idea of the individual needing to gauge their own sanity.”