By Kevin Zimmerman
Literature is littered with the noble but flawed character who attempts to right a wrong by attacking the hypocrisy or deceitfulness of those in power.
Sometimes they win.
But just as often these heroes fail and wind up paying the ultimate price for their disobedience.
In Variations Theatre Group’s production of Dale Wasserman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the charming, but deeply flawed R. P. McMurphy — played to manic perfection by Kirk Gostkowski — arrives at an unnamed mental hospital and quickly tries to change the tyrannical conditions the patients deal with on a daily basis.
And that tyranny comes in the form of Nurse Ratched, who runs her ward with strict discipline and passive aggressive behavior toward her charges.
Nurse Ratched appears all sweetness and light, but it becomes clear from the onset that if you dig a little deeper you will discover a angry, disturbed individual who gets off on the power she wields over the men she is supposed to be helping.
The play quickly dissolves into a battle of wills and wits between McMurphy and Ratched as each character’s victory in the numerous battles leads the other to ratchet up the craziness in the struggle for control.
“You must follow the rules,” Nurse Ratched says to McMurphy at one point. To which he replies, “That is what someone always tells me when I’m thinking of breaking them.”
As Nurse Ratched, Leigh Anne West owns this production.
Looking prim and proper — and even a little mousey at first — West shows us who’s in charge without ever raising her voice or getting a hair out of place. Her methodical plan to destroy McMurphy — whose only crime appears to be questioning Nurse Ratched’s methods — is carried out in her orderly and well documented manner.
West speaks volumes with a unsettling glance or quick turn of her head that keeps everyone on the defensive.
Overall, the entire cast does a good job, from the sadistic orderlies to the other patients, but a few take things to another level.
Mark A. Keeton, as the effeminate patient Harding, provides plenty of laughs, but is always in on the joke. He is in charge until McMurphy shows up, because he understands his place in the pecking order and doesn’t make trouble for Ratched.
“To survive, a rabbit hides from the wolf, it does not challenge it to combat,” Harding tells McMurphy.
Constantin Tripes provides a heartbreaking portrayal of Chief Bromden, who serves as a narrator between scenes, even though the other characters believe him to be deaf and mute. With little to no emotion and, for most of the show lacking a voice, Tripes expresses Chief’s sadness and desires through actions and glances.
Jacklyn Collier as Candy Starr only appears in two scenes but is most definitely unforgettable. She waltzes in as a bundle of hyper energy and fills the ward with a life-force that is clearly missing.
That is because Nurse Ratched has worked hard to ensure any signs of life or happiness have been sucked out of the room.
West’s Nurse Ratched is the ultimate villain, she decides if you live or die. And by the time you figure out which one it will be, it’s probably already too late.
If you Go
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
When: Through April 25
Where: The Chain Theatre, 21-28 45th Road, Long Island City
Cost: $18, $15/LIC residents, seniors and students
Contact: (646) 580-6003
Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at kzimm