Feb. 17 2016 11:32 AM

Classic play lands again at Riverwalk Theatre

Some say love is lovelier the second time around. But does a theatrical production of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” still sizzle as hot the second time around? For River-walk Theatre, it’s not a huge risk to resurrect a play it first staged some 15 years ago based a 54-yearold novel that has already been made into an iconic movie. But this is a brave new effort, nonetheless.

The play is both an indictment of mental health practices of the post World War II era and a metaphor for the questioning of external authority over one’s inner muse.

Justin Brewer plays the allegedly psychopathic anti-hero Randle P. McMurphy — a step up from his portrayal of Billy Bibbit in the previous incarnation of this play. Brewer, now older but no less scruffy, projects all the external toughness of a fierce, tiny yipping dog. Brewer’s McMurphy stalks and struts through the halls of the loony bin with a fire in his eyes, stirring up sleeping souls and inviting the wrath of his arch-nemesis, Nurse Ratched (Shannon Bowen). As Nurse Ratched, Bowen marches on and off the stage with a dogged, steely-eyed determination.

It is not an even match.

Brewer and Bowen are a contrast in styles. You can see glimpses of an internal struggle in Brewer’s performance, moments where McMurphy’s blustery façade doesn’t entirely cover the frightened vulnerability within. Bowen is slow, measured and unflinching, ever confident of her ultimate victory.

Much of the other action on stage is peripheral, a cast of mental cases played with careful abandon by an ensemble of nine veteran actors. Bibbit (Connor Kelly) is most carefully drawn, a stuttering, stammering, suicidal bundle of ever-present insecurities. Kelly, coming off of a brilliant performance in LCC’s “Never Swim Alone,” captures this character completely. Other standouts include Brett Robertson as the enigmatic native American Chief Bromden, who is silent for most of the play, and Michael Schacherbauer as Dale Harding, the leader of a card-playing quartet of crazies. Most of the other actors perform small roles, punctuating scenes with an array of shouts, spastic hand gestures, and off-kilter walks. The effect is oddly authentic.

It takes a while for the action to heat up. Much of the first act moves at the pace of mud mixed with molasses. Directors Diane and Liz Cooke, a mother/daughter duo, do not utilize the Riverwalk stage well, making a small space seem problematically large.

While this play is based on a 1962 novel, mental health is still a hot-button issue in the U.S. Plays like this gives us a chance to reflect on a few questions: Do we deliver mental health services better or worse than 50 years ago? Have we traded the vast, barely manageable mental hospitals of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for wandering, highly medicated homeless schizophrenics? Have we increased personal freedom or merely decreased the costs of services to taxpayers? These are all questions worth asking.

Nurse Ratched (Shannon Bowen, left) faces off with Randle P. McMurphy (Justin Brewer, rightt) in Riverwalk Theatre's production of "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest." Also pictured:Brett Robertson (center) as Chief Bromden.
Photo by LukeAnthony Photography

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19 and Saturday, Feb. 20; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21 $10/$8 seniors, students and military Thursday; $15/$12

seniors, students and military Friday-Sunday Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com