In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, criminal Randle Patrick McMurphy fakes being a sociopath so he can serve his sentence at a mental institution instead of a labor farm. In the hospital, he meets eight men suffering from mental illness. They bond over card games, cigarettes and, eventually, rebellion against the controlling Nurse Ratched. Produced by The NOLA Project, Cuckoo takes the audience on an emotional journey through the dark corners of the characters' minds.
In Dale Wasserman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel, the show examines mental illness and treatment in the 1960s. Electric shock treatments are used and also seem to be used as punishment. Threat of lobotomy looms and there are endless group therapy meetings.
The NOLA Project transforms NOCCA's Nims Black Box Theatre into a gray, institutional setting. Rows of chairs are set up on three sides. Nurse Ratched (Amy Alvarez) barks orders ("Take your pills") from a glassed-in enclave.
The story follows the charismatic McMurphy (Alex Martinez Wallace). He's loud, aggressive and willing to say anything to stay in the asylum. Wallace seems born for the role of the brash McMurphy, and he imbues the character with manic energy. He goes from frantic (when he realizes what "committed" actually means) to surprisingly sympathetic, offering friendship to the skittish patient Dale Harding (A.J. Allegra). He also bonds with Billy Bibbit (Levi Hood) whose overwhelming need for his mother's approval has saddled him with extreme anxiety. When he's nervous, Billy stutters. Hood embodies this character physically, at times seeming to shrink himself, and emotionally, breaking down in one of the show's most affecting moments.
Nurse Ratched says one of the patients, Chief Bromden (Michael Aaron Santos), is "deaf and dumb." At first, Chief does little more than chew gum and push a broom in endless circles. There are moments when he is alone and talks to his deceased father. Chief's backstory concerns his father, who was caught between his tribe and the U.S. government's actions to claim their land. A sense of powerlessness frames his state of mind, but Santos plays Chief with dignity, and his arc is one of the most satisfying.
An avid gambler, McMurphy bets the other patients he can get the "controlling monster" Nurse Ratched to crack. The interactions between Wallace and Alvarez pop with intensity and build to a breathtaking confrontation.
Cuckoo marks the beginning of The NOLA Project's 10th year. The show is an ambitious choice, especially because of the shadow cast over it by Milos Forman's film version, which starred Jack Nicholson and swept the Academy Awards. It's an excellent start to the season.