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“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next” is a must see at Blank Canvas


Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

It probably will come as shock to many to know that when the play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a script by Dale Wasserman, based on Kent Kesey’s novel of the same name, opened on Broadway in 1963, in spite of a cast that included Kirk Douglas, Gene Wilder, William Daniels, Ed Ames and Joan Tetzel, it was basically a flop, running only 82 performances.

On the other hand, the 1975 film, directed by Milos Forman, which starred Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, was a sensational hit.  It won five major Academy Awards including that for Best Picture, and Best Actor and Actress in leading roles.  It has gleaned over $109 million dollars on its $3 million investment, and is listed as #33 on the American Film Institute’s best 100 films list.

“Cuckoo’s Nest” is now being staged at Blank Canvas Theatre.

The story centers on a fight-for-sanity conflict between Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy and Nurse Mildred Ratched.  Mac is in a mental institution as a device to avoid criminal prosecution for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl.  Ratched is an unmarried, obsessive compulsive, OCD head nurse of the ward into which Mac is placed.  She is a master at humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments, and controls the patients through manipulation and mind-numbing routines.  (Her name has become a common phrase, in present day culture, for describing an overbearing, unrelenting, domineering female.)

Mac is creative and undisciplined. Ratched is obsessive compulsive and defiant in dominating her fiefdom.  She controls not only her ward, but the hospital’s psychiatrist, clients and staff.  This is a set of personalities naturally rife for conflict.

Understanding the title opens a door to the underbelly of the script.  A line from a nursery rhyme which the play mimics, states, “one flies east, one flies west, and one flies over the cuckoo’s nest.”  The inmates are controlled by Nurse Ratched, especially Chief Bromden, a “mute” Indian, and guilt infused Billy.  McMurphy, on the other hand, refuses to give in to her, creating a battle of wills.  Mac’s actions cause both the Chief and Billie to “fly” east and west, while he winds up flying over the cuckoo’s nest.

In the process of the play’s actions, the audience is exposed to psychological theory, electro shock therapy, emotional blackmail, mob psychology, and the consequences of ultimate and manipulative power.

The Blank Canvas production, under the astute direction of Artistic Director Pat Ciamacco, is compelling.  The cast is superlative.  Each grabs his character and lives the role.  There is no wavering or confusion of the psychological motivation behind each person’s path into psychopathology.  Each is believable as a person who is a victim of a society which has set unmanageable rules, or has personal family connections which has stimulated or compelled him to be a problematic outcast filled with angst, self-doubt and insecurities which manifest themselves into out-of-norm actions.

Highlight performances are rendered by Perren Hedderson as the mother-dominated, self-conscious, insecure, emotional-stuttering Billy.  He is matched by Daniel McElhaney, as the rebel-with-a-cause Randle P. McMurphy (Mac) who finds the rules of society too hard to push aside, even when they endanger him.  The highest recognition of the quality of her wisely understated role development as Nurse Ratched were the ”boos” given to Anne McEvoy in the opening night curtain call!

Other strong performances were given by inmates Aaron Patterson, John Polk, Len Lieber, Chris Ross, Michael N. Herzog, and Matthew Lenczewski.

Be aware that though Blank Canvas has two large air-conditioners, and at the start of the production the intimate acting space was cool, but due to natural body temperature and the heat of the lighting, the venue got warm by mid-first act.  It is not oppressive, not more than the outdoor summer performances at Porthouse, Cain Park or Rabbit Run, but be aware that some people did complain.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is one of America’s great plays.  The script gets an outstanding production at Blank Canvas. The cast is outstanding, the direction spot on, the pacing is excellent, the intimate venue lends itself to the audience being completely swept into the action.    It is a must see!


Blank Canvas’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” runs though August 2 , 2014 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  (My GPS was of little help).  Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  It’s an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to

Next up at Blank Canvas: “Hair,” the tribal rock musical, which bridged the age of traditional musical theatre to the modern era by putting the protest against the Vietnam War and the search for truth, peace and love on stage.  It features such musical classics as “Aquarius,” “Let the Sun Shine In,” and “Good Morning, Starshine.”  On stage August 29-September 13, 2014.