Theater review: Alliance delivers a stinging “Cuckoo’s Nest”

Theater review

“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”

Bottom line: Shockingly good.

Like a crazy old relative who's been shut up too long in a mental hospital, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" has arrived at the Alliance Theatre for a short, disturbing visit.

For audiences of a certain age, this material might feel as dated as an eight-track tape. (Just listen to the songs Aide Turkle hums on his morning rounds.)

After all, it’s based on a 1962 social-protest novel by Ken Kesey, who was apparently concerned with the unfair treatment of Native Americans and the sorry state of psychiatric hospitals of his day. And in 1976, it became a pop-culture phenomenon: Director Milos Forman’s film won five Oscars and turned Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) into paragons of lusty rebellion and buttoned-up authority.

But listen closely to the Alliance’s electric and essential treatment of Dale Wasserman’s script — directed by Susan V. Booth and featuring a dream team of mostly local actors — and you’ll hear the timeless echo of Greek drama, the Bible, Shakespeare and Beckett — with perhaps just a dash of “American Horror Story”-style camp thrown in for good measure.

The shenanigans of McMurphy (played with Puckish gleam by Neal Ghant) and the consequences laid down by Nurse Ratched (portrayed with an arched glare by Tess Malis Kincaid) pack the giddy euphoria of low comedy and the bruising, dark-circle side effects of tragedy into one potent, time-released pill.

Though it’s hard to divert your gaze from the bizarrely fascinating, intricately crafted tics of Richard Garner’s Scanlon, the lascivious behavior of Anthony P. Rodriguez’s Martini and the shaved head and Christ-like of posture Chris Kayser’s Ruckly, pay close attention to the prophetic mumblings of Bromden (Jeremy Proulx) and the mother fixation of Billy (Eric Mendenhall).

The story of Bromden and McMurphy is a deeply affecting bromance; the tale of Billy and Nurse Ratched a troubling twist on “Oedipus Rex.” Both, after a fashion, are love stories that bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s famous lament: “Every man kills the thing he loves.”

As boisterous, cowboy-in-the-china-closet Randle, Ghant made me laugh out loud, while Kincaid’s pertly preening Ratched reminded me of some steel matriarchs from my own past. Ghant and Kincaid may own the show, but there is some very fine ensemble work, too.

For me, Bromden’s tortured, sleep-walking confessions to his father are the most moving moments of the piece. Also memorable are the nasal musings (and affected hand motions) of Andrew Benator’s Harding — and the aforementioned musical commentary of Scott Warren’s Turkle (“Proud Mary,” “People Are Strange” and so on). On the baser end of the comedic spectrum are Bethany Anne Lind as the sweetly raucous Candy Starr and Tonia Jackson and her tag-along friend, Sandra.

On the design side, Todd Rosenthal’s set captures the pristine, sanitized look of an old mental institution. With towering windows and the suggestion of a cupola, it’s beautiful in a Gothic kind of way. Linda Roethke’s costumes are appropriately starchy and sometimes winking: lots of hospital garb, funny footwear, a diaper. And Clay Benning and Haddon Kime’s music dances with energy and intelligence, even if it tries a little to hard to get in some Native American phrases.

As a meditation on the meaning of freedom, power, sanity and madness, “Cuckoo’s Nest” is hard to beat. In trotting out some of Atlanta’s best talent, Booth does it proud.