A few years ago, Portland Center Stage (PCS) produced an original adaptation of Ken Kesey's brilliant Sometimes a Great Notion. Despite the challenging nature of the material (it's about loggers!), it was a beautiful show that boded well for this season's adaptation of PCS' One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey's equally compelling 1962 novel. But while Notion managed to distinguish itself from both the novel and film versions of that story, PCS' current production of Cuckoo's Nest can't quite crawl out from the shadows of the work that came before it.
As the swaggering Randle P. McMurphy, PJ Sosko has the unenviable task of playing a role defined by Jack Nicholson—and while possessing a certain charisma, he never quite resonates as a symbol of all the freedom the men on the ward are afraid to take.
Gretchen Corbett successfully conveys a menacing restraint as the infamous Nurse Ratched, who rules the ward with a combination of guilt and fear. But Corbett's white uniform all but disappears against the set's pale walls—and so, too, does some of the power of her character. Conveying Nurse Ratched's force without turning her into a cartoon character is a challenge, and while I'm glad Corbett erred on the side of restraint, this performance would've been even more effective on a smaller stage.
Rounding things out is Tim Sampson as Chief Bromden—if he seems born to play the role, it's because he basically was: His father played the same part in the film.
From these three characters, it should be possible to triangulate the heart of Cuckoo's Nest—but Bromden's oppression, Ratched's pinched authoritarianism, and McMurphy's oversized spirit never quite line up, as though each actor is acting on a slightly different stage.
And yet it's the stage itself that offers the show's best moments (scenic designer Tony Cisek also worked on Sometimes a Great Notion, and Sam Kusnetz and Diane Ferry Williams contribute powerful sound and lighting design). The ward's colors are a toothpaste palette of white and pale green; menacing shadows crisscross the stage; and a long hallway stretches an improbable distance upstage. Now and then, the shadows hit right, the ward thrums like a machine, and a heavy sense of menace and claustrophobia sets in—but otherwise, it's just a bunch of loveable crazies, playing basketball in a psycho ward.