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November 11, 2009

Theater: Louisville Repertory Co. soars with ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’

(Louisville Repertory Company presents “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Directed by Mike Brooks. Continues through Nov. 15 at the Kentucky Center’s MeX Theater. For tickets or more info, call 584-7777 or visit www.lourep.org.)

One might assume a play with a large cast and set in a mental institution would be at best chaotic. How could it be anything else? Well, it is anything but. Mike Brooks’s direction keeps tight control over the action onstage, always keeping the focus clear, while still allowing a loose, almost improvisational feel. It is the perfect balance for this play.

The play, of course, is Louisville Repertory Company’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on Ken Kesey’s book and adapted by Dale Wasserman. The play is set in a mental institution in the 1960s. Nurse Ratched runs the ward with mind-numbing daily routines, where all the patients fall into place — until McMurphy arrives. McMurphy, a gregarious and sometimes short-tempered man, has convinced the court that he’s crazy enough to need psychiatric care and is sent to a hospital. This is McMurphy’s great ploy to serve out his sentence in a more relaxed atmosphere and avoid hard labor.

What is remarkable about this play is the humanity brought to every character, thanks to the script, the tight direction and a talented cast. From the men who reside on the floor, in all their stages of (in)sanity, to those employed to care for them, there is a clear sense that these are full human beings living and breathing even after stepping foot offstage.

I would be remiss to comment on the performances of the cast without highlighting the three lead actors. Andy Pyle as McMurphy, Becky LeCron as Ratched and Dave Levy as Chief bring honesty to their characters, making the resolution of the play extremely effective. Pyle is instantly likable in the role of McMurphy. His McMurphy is genuine and kindhearted — he realizes the potential in the other patients, which allows them to begin to see themselves as worthy. When he realizes his luxurious sentence might actually set in motion his own doom, it is appropriately heartbreaking.

LeCron’s performance as the oppressive Ratched is to be commended. The control her character has over the ward is the same control LeCron has over her own emotional reactions. It is this intense restraint that makes Ratched such a formidable character — there is a constant, lingering threat under her “caring” demeanor.

Chief’s loneliness and despair make his quiet presence constantly felt, thanks to a moving performance by Levy.

The designs of the production work well together — the sterile, minimalist set (designed by Brian Shaw) and Lily Bartenstein’s lighting provide an atmosphere that is both focused and exposed, the same juxtaposition that confines the men in the ward. And, of course, there is the sound design, which is completely provided by the actors onstage. From music to effects, the organic sound keeps the momentum going without allowing the audience to be taken out of the action because of a sound cue. It is also a reminder of how poetic this play can be.

This production is sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but always genuine — not to be missed.