If people want to see the real 'Cuckoo's Nest,' they should see the play version," said Mark Shilstone-Laurent, director of The Western Stage's season-opener.
That's because the stage adaptation of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" has more in common with the novel than the movie, with key passages lifted directly from the book.
In fact, Kesey himself shunned the 1975 blockbuster movie — refusing to watch it when it was released, and even attempting to sue the film's producers.
Whereas the novel is told from the perspective of a purported deaf-mute schizophrenic Native American patient hospitalized in a mental institution, the narrative point of view in the movie was shifted to that of Randall P. McMurphy, a rebellious cad who has been incarcerated for statutory rape, but is then sent to the mental institution for evaluation.
"The book is from Chief Bromden's perspective, and it really is the story of Chief Bromden as he gets liberated by McMurphy," said Shilstone-Laurent. "That's why Kesey turned his back on the film. It wasn't 'Cuckoo's Nest' — it was the Jack Nicholson show. Which was fine — he was great — but the Indian was a minor character."
The film did win five Academy Awards, and made the American Film Institute's "100 Years ... 100 Movies" list. But still, by preserving the Chief's narrative point of view in Dale Wasserman's stage adaptation of the story, the play also preserves more of Kesey's intended meaning, said Shilstone-Laurent.
So that's why it's fitting that The Western Stage is presenting this play as their season opener on the 50th anniversary of the novel's publication.
The show opens Friday, June 1 in the Studio Theater at Hartnell College's Performing Arts Center.
Under the direction of Shilstone-Laurent, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" features Reynald A.Medrano II as Chief Bromden, Jeff McGrath as McMurphy, Dawn Flood Fenton as the indomitable Nurse Ratched and Skot Davis as the paranoid inmate Dale Harding.
"This is a personal favorite — I grew up in the Bay Area in the 1960s," said Shilstone-Laurent. "I read the novel when it came out and just loved it. I lived in Redwood City so I felt a real connection with Kesey. For me he's the seed of the '60s."
Though Shilstone-Laurent describes himself as more of an actor than a director, there are a couple of shows that he loves to direct — and this is one of them.
The Western Stage production will mark the third time he's directed "Cuckoo's Nest." He said that it's the poetic and literary quality of the script that he loves.
"The Chief has a series of voice-over monologues that tell the story from his perspective," he explained. "The lights black out and there is a spotlight on Chief. It opens with him telling his monologue, and he becomes the motif that brings you back. So you get that literary quality — and great insight into what Kesey is saying."
The theme of the novel, as well as both the play and the film, is conformity versus individuality. Shilstone-Laurent describes it as the 1950s versus the 1960s — the two generations that Kesey straddled as an artist.
In his monologues, the Chief compares the systematically enforced conformity he has witnessed as akin to a great black combine. He choses to remain silent as a way to safely navigate life in the insane asylum.
"From my perspective, the Chief doesn't really have (mental) problems," said Medrano, who plays the part. "He's just super-shy, quiet and tormented by thoughts of his father as a chief who was tortured by Caucasian people. He's looking back at his childhood memories of living on an Indian reservation. He ties what happened to his father to what happened to him in the psychiatric hospital. He sees what will happen to McMurphy if he doesn't try to fit in."
To deepen their understanding of these characters, Shilstone-Laurent organized a field trip for the cast to visit the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, where Kesey worked nights as an orderly while he was a student in the creative writing program at Stanford University.
Though the story takes place in a fictional facility in Bend, Ore., Kesey based many of the characters on actual people he met during his night shifts in the hospital.
"We went on a Sunday so there was an ominous stillness," said Shilstone-Laurent. "It's real pretty — yet you know what was going on in this place in the past. The building where Kesey worked was still there. You could feel the clinical nature; you really got a sense of the sterile, starched feel of the place. It really informed the characters."
"We visited their recreation area, where they have a television and kitchen," said Medrano. "I got a better understanding of each person's surroundings, their responsibilities, their way of life. The conditions (when Kesey worked there) were a lot harsher than the reality today."
Medrano said that when he's playing the part of the Chief, he draws on the sights, scents and sounds from his visit to the facility.
"It's like when you walk in a dentist's office and it has a distinct smell — this place has that hospital smell. So that's what I try to reflect on to understand the character and the conditions he faced."
He adds that one of the emotions that he evokes during his performance is that of fear.
"You can feel it in all the characters: A fear of the nurse, fear of the guards, fear that they can die at any time at the hands of the people who work there," Medrano said. "It's not much different from what you'd see on TV in the way of prison life. You have to conform or something bad is going to happen to you. They're always scared. The chief chooses to remain quiet for a reason."
Lily Dayton can be reached at email@example.com. GO!
·What: The Western Stage presents "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
·Where: The Studio Theater, Hartnell College campus, 411 Central Ave., Salinas
·When: Opens at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 1; continues at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees through June 24
·Tickets: $20 adults, $10 children at 755-6816 or online at www.westernstage.com; group sales of 10 tickets or more available at a discounted rate at 755-6012 or