There are many reasons why I wanted to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but one reason stood out far above the rest. I first directed it back in New Jersey in 1980 and, like an old friend you haven’t seen in awhile, it was time to pay that friend a visit. I don’t remember much from that production anymore. Four decades have passed and I drifted into other areas and experiences before coming full circle and returned to theatre in 2020. The 1980 production was well-received. I remember the reviews were good, not great, but good, we filled the 110 seat theatre every weekend for six weeks, the actors seemed proud of their work and I, as I tend to do, downplayed it while inside I was satisfied. Secretly, very satisfied.
But now when I think of myself back then, a man in my late 20’s, I doubt I did that production justice. This play is about the thirst we have for Freedom. Back then, I had no real concept of Freedom. Out of college and in my early 20’s I drifted. Hung out. Had to answer to nobody, did what I wanted when I wanted and then did it again. I smoked cigarettes when I knew I shouldn’t. Ate late night meals with my boys in all-night New Jersey diners and spent hours in a neighborhood tavern hanging out with my buddies and my friend Jack Daniels because that’s what Mr. Sinatra did. I didn’t hunger for Freedom. I was living Freedom. So what could I have brought to that production in 1980? A few tricks, getting good but most likely shallow performances from the actors, probably did a pretty good job lighting the set, I suppose I blocked the actors well, but did I bring any insight into the play back then. No. Of course not. Nothing. I hadn’t lived long or hard enough to fully understand this play. When you are sheltered from the storm, when you’re living life on Easy Boulevard, it’s hard to understand the willingness to die, if need be, for Freedom. Not just for yourself but for anyone. Only when you are older can you really understand sacrificing yourself for others. So four decades after directing Cuckoos Nest I wanted to revisit it and see if the play held up. It held up. And I learned a hell of a lot about myself. My first reaction to returning to Cuckoos Nest forty years later was it was not the same play. But it was the same play, the same concept, the same words, so how could it change? And then it hit me. It didn’t change. I did. I discovered the play within the play. I saw what I missed four decades earlier. I saw as an older man what I didn’t see or understand as a younger man. Having climbed the various mountains we are forced to climb, navigated through the traps and potholes and incendiary devices that Life lays out before us, having learned that winning and losing are the same damn thing, I now understood why Ken Kesey wrote this novel and approved turning it into a theatrical production. I understood why Kesey, through Mac, needed to be free of whatever steel cables were holding him down so he could be free to lead his Merry Pranksters on their many drug induced travels. I now understood why the Hardings and the Billys stepped willingly into this insane Nest, why Chief Bromden shut it all down and trusted no one, and I finally understood why the Chief broke his self-isolation for McMurphy. It also took me a long time and some hard times to understand why McMurphy chose to become a martyr, why Fate took a damaged man and made him a Savior to others even more damaged than himself. A younger man isn’t ready to accept martyrdom. Younger men think they are invincible. Younger men think they are immortal. Older men know otherwise. It also took me forty years to understand the poisons that festered inside of Nurse Ratched. As a young man I saw a banshee. A demon luring weak men to their death. Now I understood her. Like the men on her ward, Life had beaten her down. She lived in the asylum. She barricaded herself inside those cement walls, away from the world that damaged her. She too was voluntary. She controlled that ward because she couldn’t control the world outside. McMurphy came in from the outside and she needed to destroy him before he could destroy her sanctuary. Forty years ago I saw her as an executioner. Now I understood her. She was damaged. She was beaten. She was protecting what was keeping her sane. It all looked evil, but it was survival of the fittest. If she lost the ward, she lost everything. She did the only thing she could do. Survive. None of this made it in the first production. I believe all this now lives inside this production. I think the 1980 production was good, but lacking any real depth. I think this production is damn good. Let me stop downplaying. This production is great and people need to see it. In a heavyweight bout, this production knocks out my original in the first round. I am proud of this show. I am proud of this cast. I went back older and wiser to visit with an Old Friend and that Friend taught me that the mountains I climbed were well worth the blood and sweat I had to shed to get here. When you see this production I hope that you too will have the same revelation, the same awakening that I had. That the blood and the sweat are worth it and that at different times in Life we are martyrs and other times we are survivors at whatever the cost.
Richard Dominick directed One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest