Jack Nicholson’s iconic portrayal of Randle McMurphy in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is just one of the roles that helped solidify his acting chops. But the movie was bigger than any one man. Based on the book of the same name, written by Ken Kesey, “Cuckoo’s Nest” gave an inside look at a dysfunctional mental health system that punished so-called misbehavior and numbed patients instead of helping them.
While the mental health establishment has come a long way from those terrifying days, “Cuckoo’s Nest” still contains a message relevant to modern times. And that’s why the Justice Theater Project is kicking off its next season with a local production of the play.
“It seems like we do a lot of fighting about the health care system,” said Deb Royals, artistic director for the Justice Theater Project. “I just wanted to have productive conversation around what is available to us and how to access it. And what happens when you don’t have access to it.”
This season’s shows will follow multiple aspects of the health care system, including dealing with cancer, aging and mental health. And the message of “Cuckoo’s Nest” – in which McMurphy, a brawler and iconoclast who just wants a good time ends up lobotomized – is important in a society that still embraces definitions of so-called normalcy.
“There are oftentimes people who we come into contact with in our daily lives that may not choose to make choices or may not seem like us, but that makes them no less important to understand and embrace,” Royals said.
The show is being performed during three weekends, starting Sept. 6 and going through Sept. 22 in Clare Hall at St. Francis of Assisi Church in North Raleigh. Each weekend will include extra events discussing the topic of mental health, culminating in a health care fair the final weekend in which people can come and get more information about mental health resources.
“This is the biggest amount of programming or event planning that we’ve done around any of our shows,” Royals said.
The overarching message of the Justice Theater Project and this season of shows can be summed up in a playbill note accompanying the performance of “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“A body, though it has many parts, forms one whole,” the note reads. “So it is with our immediate community, our state and with our world. This message is especially relevant when engaging our community in a conversation about the American healthcare system. Is profit more important than health and dignity? If we truly understand our part as being one small piece of the human body, then we have a responsibility to give preferential option to the most vulnerable among us.”
Royals says that through its productions, the Justice Theater Project strives to bring attention to the issues facing poor people. Productions like “Cuckoo’s Nest” help those of us who are more fortunate to see the world from a different point of view. In a time when health care is becoming increasingly expensive, that is especially important.
“We use the performing arts to make that happen, and I thought we should have a season where we can bring this to the fore of the public,” she said.
At a young age, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” had a strong impact on me. I read the book and saw the movie. It helped me find myself – a weird, offbeat adolescent – in a world that didn’t seem particularly interested in who I was or how I saw myself. Hopefully this play can do that for a new generation: one that faces more fear, danger and misunderstanding than I ever did.
Alex Granados writes about people, places and traditions in North Raleigh and beyond. Contact him at email@example.com.