Cukcoo’s Nest

by Jean Swearingen, June 26, 2013

Judging by Mark Scaramella’s front page article in the June 12th edition of the AVA, mental health issues are still an extremely hot topic in Mendocino County, leading me to believe that the Ukiah Players Theatre’s choice of staging One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as their most recent production was neither random nor accidental. I hope that at least some of you got the opportunity to see it during its three-week run; it was brilliantly performed by a superb cast. This was the first UPT production I had seen since moving to Ukiah last December, and it would easily rival any production of any play I have seen at any theatre company in Sacramento, San Jose, or the Bay Area. This was only the second live production of the show I had seen, the first having been at the Little Fox Theatre in San Francisco sometime during the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. This production was every bit as good as that one, if not better, and although I have enjoyed watching the film version, with Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, I was pleased to note that director Keith Aisner kept his vow to stay true to the original novel by Ken Kesey (which I have also read) and stage adaptation by Dale Wasserman.

I had the opportunity to see both of those men, the author and the playwright, live and in person, the former when he was the guest narrator at a Sacramento Symphony (now Sacramento Philharmonic) concert that was part of a summer series on the grounds of CSU, Sacramento in 1988. The theme for this particular concert was “water,” and the guest performer was Mason Williams, of “Classical Gas” fame. In addition to some of Williams’ original compositions, the orchestra performed Handel’s “Water Music,” and, among other water-themed pieces, an extremely humorous rendition of the old hymnal standard “Shall We Gather at the River?” utilizing Ken Kesey’s substantial comedic vocal talents for his portrayal of a southern fundamentalist evangelical preacher. The entire concert was delightful, and the only downside was the noise of trains speeding across the railroad tracks near the section of CSUS where the concert was held and the need to wait out a drop in temperature before it began, due to a clause in the musicians’ contract designed to protect their instruments from damage by being played during excess heat—something for which Sacramento is notorious in summer months.

My contact with Dale Wasserman occurred exactly four years later, in the summer of 1992, when I was cast in a fairly substantial role (Cassandra Trimble, the banker’s wife) in the “world premiere” in Fairfield (at their then new performing arts center downtown) of his musical Western Star, which, for reasons I never did really understand, never quite got off the ground, and, to the best of my knowledge, has not been performed anywhere else since then. The story line centers around the townspeople of the mythical village of Esperanza, Colorado in 1875, and their interactions with a parade of strangers who invade their town with considerably less than honorable intentions. Our director wanted the cast to appear to be as much like “real” townsfolk as possible, so he included my two sons, age 9 and 12, and the daughter of the actor who played the sheriff, who was about the same age as my younger son. It was the closest to a professional production in which I had ever performed—we had brand new costumes made especially for us, a professional hairdresser, and even received a small stipend.

I had worked with the director and choreographer on previous productions, as well as the director’s fiancé, who played the female lead, and some of the other cast members. Most of us lived in or near Sacramento, so we were able to set up carpools, and doing the show was an extremely enjoyable experience for all of us—that is, until Dale Wasserman and his wife Martha showed up on the set in mid-August, during tech week. Everything that the producers of the show (all employed with the City of Fairfield) liked, that we had been rehearsing for weeks, he hated, and had no reservations about sharing unpleasantly with our diligent cast and crew. After much shouting (on his part) and gnashing of teeth (on our part), we were all finally able to reach a compromise so the show could go on as scheduled without any delays—fortunately, in light of the fact that ticket sales for all of the performances were going extremely well.

Wasserman’s wife Martha was clearly his greatest asset, and had apparently, of necessity, cast herself in the role of maintaining damage control. Having noticed me in the process of collecting money from cast and crew members to finance our cast party at a local restaurant, right before their departure, she approached me, warmly took both of my hands in hers, and squeezed them tightly, extending her best wishes for a great run of the show and an equally great cast party. Thanking her profusely, I finally let go of her hands, and as I walked away, opening my palms, I couldn’t help but notice that she had placed a crisp $100 bill in each one. Thanks to her kind generosity, the cast party was a huge success, as was, fortunately for all of us, the show itself.

 

One other play dealing with the subject of mental illness is Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, one of his lesser known Broadway musicals, in which the institution is referred to as “The Cookie Jar” and its patients as “cookies.” It starred Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury, and Harry Guardino, and closed after only nine performances in 1964. It is also rarely (if ever) performed, although I saw a production in Davis in the 1990s.

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