In the realm of entertainment, mental institutions and their staff are often cast as the villain. Take Shock Corridor (1963), for instance, where Peter Breck plays an ambitious journalist whose undercover investigation renders him completely crazy by the end. Or Session 9 (2001) where David Caruso's asbestos cleaning crew contracts lunacy—as if it were a virus—from the haunted walls of a very creepy, very evil abandoned asylum.
"Crazy," "madman" and "lunatic" aren't exactly politically correct terms these days for the real-life mentally ill community. But they seem somehow appropriate descriptions when it comes to the sensationalized roles of mentally ill patients in plays and films. Jack Nicholson, of course, has given us all sorts of "crazy" with his axe-wielding, wild-eyed performance in The Shining. But it's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—not just as a film starring Nicholson but also as a book and play—that really marks the quintessential role of mental institution as antagonist.
This week in Missoula you can enjoy two very different satires on what it means to be "crazy." Missoula Community Theatre (MCT)—not to be confused with "children's theater"—offers One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, while the Montana Rep Missoula (MRM) performs Bad Habits, two one-act pieces that comically turn the notion of crazy on its head. The productions take place in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, which helps contextualize both stories smack in the middle of time when mental institutions still had bad reputations. That means the tone swings like a pendulum between absurdity and resounding sadness—depending on which one of the shows you're watching. Straitjackets abound. Inappropriate laughter and drugged-up patients singing sea shanties included. Needles, shock therapy and magical serums all around.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in particular, taps into the idea of a mental institution as an oppressive confine. It isn't an obvious choice for MCT. Though the theater organization was recently embroiled in controversy over a satirical lyric about Sarah Palin in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, it's not a company exactly known for controversy. Cuckoo's Nest is a little edgier than MCT's usual smorgasbord of mainstream musicals and classic renditions, but it's still a classic, and director David Mills-Low sees it squarely in the realm of Missoula's community theater.
"It is done in community theaters and high schools throughout the country," says Mills-Low, who comes from a grittier background, having played roles and directed shows with the more experimental Montana Actors' Theatre. "It's not a kids' show, but MCT decided they'd take the risk of doing a show that's not family fare."
Acting insane is one of those things that looks easier than it is and—like acting drunk—actors have a tendency to overdo it. Mills-Low approached Cuckoo's Nest with the idea that the cast of characters—including Samuel Jaxin Enemy-Hunter as Chief Bromden and Andrew Rizzo as Randle Patrick McMurphy—had to resist caricature. All that mania, all those personal ticks had to come from a character who felt like an actual person with a real illness.
"I wanted to let the actors explore that human side," Mills-Low says, "making sure we don't go to a cartoon-y place, so that when our audience sits down and watches the show they can sit down and get lost in it."
Same goes for Nurse Ratched (played by Martha Neslen), who's notorious for exemplifying frigid, emasculating cruelty. Ken Kesey, who wrote Cuckoo's Nest in the 1960s while volunteering for LSD experiments and then working as a psychiatric aide, created his characters to fit his ideas of social oppression. Nurse Ratched doesn't have much humanity in that version, but in the film and in play versions, she's often given enough to elicit at least a drop of empathy.
"I've seen lists of the top 10 most evil women of all time," says Mills-Low, "and she always comes up on the top of the list. But there is also something very human about her and there's a reason why she does what she does."
In MRM's Bad Habits, on the other hand, almost everyone is a lunatic—whether they're the doctor or the patient. The first one act play takes place at a rehab center called Dunelawn where a doctor, Dr. Pepper (played by Howard Kingston) prescribes all kinds of vices—cigarettes, sex and drinking—to his patients in order that they pursue the one thing that will cure them: happiness. Of course it's not that easy. One person's happiness can be a spouse's misery, and visa versa. There's a certain amount of caricature here: a naïve suburban husband-and-wife team, an egotistical pair of Hollywood actors and a neurotic gay couple all spark hilarity with their outrageous behavior. But, individually, the characters have some great quirks that launch the comedy in unpredictable directions.
The second one act play takes place in a psychiatric ward called Ravenswood where two nurses named Nurse Benson and Nurse Hedges—played with exacting comedy by Teresa Waldorf and Salina Chatlain—try to cure the bad habits of a transvestite, an alcoholic and a sadist with a serum developed by the revered Doctor Toynbee. The rub is that the nurses themselves also have bad habits, and their desire to cure themselves—to become perfect—leads to a kind of obsessive compulsiveness to be cured of all earthly desires. Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it's a commentary on different types of insanity. Neither play necessarily speaks to what it truly means to be mentally ill in a clinical way in current times, though they do provide tales about institutions of the past. Mostly, the shows give insight into social ills. Cuckoo's Nest questions the lines between spirited liberty and sanity, while Bad Habits pokes fun at anyone who thinks they've somehow escaped self-delusion.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest shows at the MCT Center for Performing Arts Fri., March 11–Sun., March 13, and Wed. March 16–Sun. March 20 at 8 PM nightly, except Sun. when it shows at 6:30 PM with Sat. and Sun. matinees at 2 PM. Go to www.mctinc.org or call 728-7529 for ticket prices. Bad Habits continues at the Crystal Theatre Thu., March 10–Sat., March 12, and Tue., March 15–Sat., March 19, at 7:30 PM nightly. $15 Fri.–Sat./$10 Tue.–Thu./$5 students.