'Cuckoo' sings a darkly disturbing song

With great acclaim comes great responsibility. And Theatre Charlotte, which won 2011 Theatre of the Year honors at the Metrolina Theatre Association Awards last month, has risen to the call: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," a serious show for any community drama troupe, deserves to be taken seriously indeed.

The dark tone is set before the first patient on Nurse Ratched's mental ward utters a word.

Part of a giant cog rises behind Chris Timmons' sterile, oddly angled set, to remind us that novelist Ken Kesey saw society as a mechanized, dehumanizing force. Light glints, even in the darkest moments, off a high piece of barbed wire that suggests a concentration camp. The first of many disturbing sound effects introduces Chief Bromden, the hefty Indian driven to silence by the treatment of his family and his people. (Bromden opens his troubled heart to us, however.)

Director Charles LaBorde and his cast freshen even familiar elements. Donna Scott's doggedly procedural Ratched seems a reasonable if chilly bureaucrat through the opening half; only as Act 1 ends does she turn overtly cruel.

Randle McMurphy (J.R. Adduci) comes off at first not as the likeable rebel of the 1975 movie, where Jack Nicholson played a genial malingerer who feigned madness to escape jail time. This McMurphy seems genuinely on the edge of strangeness, perhaps not crazy but ill-adapted to ordinary society. The calm Bromden (Matthew Corbett, a veteran at this role) is less symbolic, more down-to-earth and touching.

LaBorde explains the production's journey in his director's note: This is Dale Wasserman's two-act version of the three-act play he wrote in 1963, which adapted Kesey's 1962 novel. LaBorde asked the cast to read the book and staged "iconic moments ... as they were described in the novel."

Maybe that accounts, as much as the satisfying acting, for the believability of this piece. The high moments, such as the humiliation of Billy Bibbit (the fine Jamie Glinski), leave a mark. So do some of the most unobtrusive bits: Notice Ted Weiner's near-comatose Ruckly, or the blunt insensitivity of Ratched's assistants (Norman Burt and J.R. Jones).

Kesey wrote the book at 27, using some of his experiences as an aide in a California veterans hospital and a participant in government-sponsored studies of mind-altering drugs. Yet he was making a larger point about the America in which he had grown up: the seemingly placid Eisenhower years, when those who didn't conform were marginalized.

That feeling comes through in this version, where most of the patients are voluntary cases hiding from social pressure in the dull quietude of the institution. McMurphy is assertive yet equally unfocused: He beats his head frantically against any rule or convention, and he reminded me of Marlon Brando's biker antihero in "The Wild One." (Asked what he's rebelling against, the biker replies, "Whaddaya got?")

There are no winners in this game of wills: not Ratched, not McMurphy, not the patients left to resume gray, well-medicated lives. The one moment of hope Kesey and Wasserman allow us may be a mirage.

After the last note of soothing Muzak - including "True Grit" and "I've Got No Strings," surely meant ironically - we're left with a bleak final image. And, I think, the feeling that we may be heading back toward the America from which Ken Kesey was running away.