“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” runs Sept. 2-20. It contains profanity, sexual situations and motional violence, and is recommended for ages 16 and up. Details, tickets HERE.
King Lear. A Trip to Bountiful. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
These are among the plays you don’t do, says Alliance Theatre Artistic Director Susan V. Booth, unless you know you’ve got your leads locked in.
Cuckoo’s Nest, based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, is full of rich roles, as one might expect with its mental hospital setting. Booth is specifically referring to the two most pivotal characters: the defiant Randle Patrick McMurphy who has faked insanity to avoid prison, and the steely Nurse Ratched, ruler of the psych ward. (Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher earned Oscars for their work in the 1976 film. Kirk Douglas played McMurphy in the 1963 Broadway original.)
“I knew Tess Malis Kincaid had a Ratched in her,” says Booth. “She’s proved that more than a few times in other roles.” Alliance audiences saw her as Barbara Fordham in the theater’s staging of August: Osage County, for which she won a Suzi Bass Award,as well as many performances at Georgia Shakespeare and her indelible turn as the spurned wife in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at Actor’s Express in 2004.
But the role of McMurphy, notes Booth, is trickier. “He’s simultaneously got to be wildly charismatic, just a hair off-center, and dangerous and vulnerable in equal measure.”
When Booth directed Neal A. Ghant last season in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, she was “blown away by his range.” Later, when Ghant was rehearsing Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, Booth sought the playwright’s opinion.
“She confirmed an instinct that he would be very, very right,” Booth reports.
So, here we are.
The Atlanta acting pool “goes seriously deep” with character actors, Booth says, and Cuckoo’s Nest presents an “impossibly rich showcase” for that talent.
She was excited to slot such well-established Atlanta actors as Andrew Benator, David de Vries, Richard Garner, Chris Kayser, Eric Mendenhall and Anthony P. Rodriguez in some of the quirky supporting roles. She knew “these crazy-smart and fearless gents,” would “happily dive into the play’s psychological complexity.”
TO PREPARE FOR McMURPHY, who’s rarely offstage, Ghant memorized his lines before rehearsals began. “I put myself through some rigor,” he says. “I don’t often start as early as I started working on this one. But I understand the demands required here.”
It helps, he says, to be sharing the stage with so many familiar faces.
“We all know each other, we know what each other is capable of, we’re all excited and want this to be something great.”
The book has far more detail than Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation, and Booth encouraged her cast to go to the original source. “You know,” she says, “if you go back to Ken Kesey’s brilliant novel, this is a story about the power of the state and the powerlessness of the individual when the state is allowed too much authority.”
The novel “has given me the angle as to how I want to approach the character,” says Ghant.
WHILE THE CUCKOO’S NEST STORY is disturbing, Ghant appreciates its kindness. “Randle P. McMurphy, yeah, he’s roguish and rude — but there’s a lot of compassion that comes from him. That’s what has really struck me: The draw-the-line-in-the-sand approach to caring.”
He also likes that the story is personal, edgy and fun. “This is a serious play,” he says, “but we’re also going to have some fun.”
As McMurphy says, “You got to laugh — ’specially when things ain’t funny.”
Speaking of fun, Ghant is “ecstatic” that he gets to share time again with Kincaid, with whom he worked on Georgia Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in 2009.
“Nobody brings the kind of presence to the stage that Tess Malis Kincaid brings,” he says. “She carries herself with a regalness. She can be loving, nurturing, powerful and literally frightening when she wants to be. That’s going to play really nicely.”
KINCAID, LIKEWISE, can’t say enough about Ghant. “I adore him. He’s a chameleon, and he’s ageless. He can play anything from a sexy, cool dude to the most vulnerable, damaged individual, to someone incredibly powerful.”
Kincaid is drawn to the classics and comedy. “I love being goofy, a wee bit wacky.” But she also appreciates the chance “to dig into something like this that terrifies me. I like the challenge of finding the fierce nature within a character.”
The fact that the coolly domineering Ratched is such an iconic role can be a little scary, Kincaid says. “People will come in with certain expectations. It’s my job to get them to let go of their preconceived notions.”
Kincaid considers Ratched a powerful responsibility and suspects every cast member feels the same about their characters.
“It’s a thrill to be invited to the party,” she says.
Julie Bookman is a journalist whose chief focus is arts, entertainment and literature. She has worked on the staffs of three daily newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and has interviewed everyone from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Liberace, and Mary Martin to Mikhail Baryshnikov.