Nursing an obsession

by Hanna Miller

Imagine a group of mostly mismatched strangers, all hailing from different backgrounds, united only by obsession, who wrench an emotional community from enforced physical closeness. That’s a pretty apt descriptor for the institutionalized men who populate One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s also a fair characterization of the cast of Asheville Community Theatre’s upcoming production of the play.

“Theater is a very unique world,” says director Bill Gregg, who readily acknowledges an overlap between the asylum and the stage. “We have everybody from all walks of life. There’s an accountant, a nurse, a waiter.”

And comparatively few seasoned ACT players. Of the show’s eight leads, five are new to the ACT stage. Two of the show’s 20 performers have never been on any stage.

“I didn’t even act in high school,” says Tina Lipscomb, 44, who will be making her debut as provocative party girl Sandra.

Gregg says the influx of newcomers has made for an unusual dynamic, one that wouldn’t be completely foreign to residents of the nightmarish mental hospital depicted in Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s book. Nobody knows the ground rules, so there’s been more explaining than usual. More getting-to-know-you sessions. More talking, more listening and many more run-throughs, which all add up to more time at the theater.

“The rehearsal process is a lot longer,” admits Gregg, who’s also the moonlighting artistic director of Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre. “At SART, most of the time you’re working with people you work with a lot. You develop shorthand. When you give a note, it could be cryptic to anyone else.”

But Lipscomb says she hasn’t burned out yet.

“I’m thrilled beyond belief. I can’t wait to get there after work. I think this is an incredible group of people. We support each other, we challenge each other.”

Lipscomb has been a nurse for 22 years. “All I’ve ever done is health care,” she says. But about ten years ago, she started wondering whether she might perform as well on a stage as in a hospital. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest provided a gentle segue.

“When there’s something inside of you saying, ‘I want to do this,’ it’s not like you can go back to school [full time]. So when I saw ACT was offering classes, I signed up. And I discovered acting is something I can do.”

Lipscomb was among more than 70 hopefuls who read for a role, a tally ACT managing director Susan Harper says trounced her expectations: “I’d have been happy with 30.” She attributes the turnout to the theater’s community outreach.

“I like to think it’s because ACT is an open and welcom[ing] place,” says Harper, noting that new arrivals to the Asheville area often make the theater their first stop. To hear Harper tell it, connecting with a community-theater group is as obligatory for a relocated thespian as hooking up electricity.

“Every week, someone walks in who’s new in town,” she reveals. “Last year, we had 882 volunteers.”

Not a shock

But surely there’s something unique about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that accounts for the audition crowd. The story, in its book, film and stage forms, seems to exert a sort of trance-inducing hold on the American public, no matter how many critics try to lift the spell. It ranks with the maroon (and inevitably tattered) covered edition of The Catcher in the Rye as a mid-20th-century literary touchstone for the self-consciously rebellious set.

“It’s one of those titles everybody knows,” Gregg acknowledges. “Like To Kill a Mockingbird or Inherit the Wind, it’s a cult classic.”

Kesey’s book was an instant bestseller in 1962, and the 1975 film version – so rife with artistic liberties which Kesey himself found nauseating that it should be classified as a stepchild rather than a direct descendant of the novel – had a magnificent Oscars run, sweeping the top awards for the first time since Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert propelled It Happened One Night to a five-category win 41 years before.

But Dale Wasserman, who penned the play’s script in 1963, initially found his glory road littered with potholes. The first Broadway production, captained by none other than Kirk Douglas, was sunk in just ten weeks by merciless reviews. The play was resurrected in San Francisco in 1970, where audiences gobbled up the tale of alternate realities and madcap play in the face of one-dimensional power. That show’s success led to the film, which Harper concedes probably constitutes the bulk of the baggage ACT’s audience will bring with them.

“Just about everyone who comes to see it will be familiar with the movie,” she says. “They want to see how we’re going to pull it off.”

Not by mimicry or impersonation, she promises: For the second time in two years, ACT has found an actor brave enough to interpret a role Jack Nicholson made iconic (last year it was Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men.)

“It speaks well of a person who is willing to go up against Jack Nicholson,” Harper says. “But we aren’t comparing it to the movie. These are very different art forms.”

The appeal, though, is very much the same. Cuckoo’s Nest may be a misogynistic tract and an unfair indictment of institutionalism, as critics have claimed, but, like Catcher in the Rye, it amplifies a voice readers thought only they could hear. The story, for all its groovy ‘60s reference points, is a simple celebration of grassroots community, whether it be located in the halls of an asylum or in the basement of a community theater.

“There’s a lot of humanity, a lot of humor,” says first-time performer Lipscomb, who this month auditioned for her next ACT production.

[Contributing writer Hanna Miller lives in Asheville.]

Asheville Community Theatre (35 E. Walnut St.) presents One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Friday, Jan. 20 through Sunday, Feb. 5, with performances Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $20/adults, $18/seniors and $10/students. Call 254-1320 for more information.



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