Patients are institutionalized under circumstances that are not always immediately clear. Chief Bromden, as someone who has been a part of a therapeutic community for at least a decade and a half, is labeled chronic. He suffers from hallucinations, possibly due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for his time in the service. And, while the imagery Chief describes is visual poetry, his reality is a fever dream of the sterile, contrived context in which he currently resides.
Before he was committed, Bromden watched his father experience mental and physical abuse, falling from the revered station of the full chief to ultimately death by a combination of blunt force trauma and alcohol abuse. Chief loses all sense of community once his father perishes and the government builds over the falls that Chief’s tribe once called their own. That displacement leaves Chief unhoused in a community that forcibly extracted the Columbian River tribe from its rightful home. Without a sense of stasis, we have to imagine Chief may have escaped into the same clouded fate as his father did. The difference between Chief and his father is—at one time--Chief fought back. Bromden witnessed his father belittled by his mother, a white townswoman, and pillaged by torch carriers of the 1950s for merely presenting as a behemoth, indigenous man. Only after over two hundred electroshock therapy sessions did Chief become as little as his father, losing the fight within him that landed Chief in the men’s ward initially. The moniker of “Chief Bromden” is bequeathed to Chief upon his entry into the hospital, a sullen reminder of his interrupted succession to lead his tribe and his mother’s contribution to that demise. Instead of engaging with the men with whom he is hospitalized to cultivate a new brotherhood, Bromden alienates himself by presenting as hearing impaired and mute. In doing so, he is able to avoid confrontation with others, but Chief is also hoping to be able to avoid confronting his own demons: imagined or otherwise.
Chief has hope when a new patient is admitted who exhibits the same fight he once did, but Chief marks the same successful, belittling, tactics of his mother upon the new patient’s inception. Bromden fears he will have to rely on himself to be the catalyst for his re-entry into what will be a new world that he has been estranged from for almost two decades.
I, too, am a product of a family whose lineage includes mental health and addiction issues. I know many of us are. At first glance, the behavior of these men may appear extraordinary, but as you listen to their stories unfold, you will realize that their circumstances are universal: the ramifications of war on society’s mental health, the failure to live up to our parents’ expectations, the stigma of being unmarried, and so much more.
I am very happy to revisit this play twenty years after I initially performed in it as we all find greater meaning in all forms of art as we return to them throughout our lifetimes. Regardless of the extent to which you are familiar with this story, you are in for a thoughtful and moving night of theatre.
Justin Schaller plays Chief Bromden