Neal Ghant throws himself into his roles.
On this morning, two weeks before he helps kick off the Alliance Theatre’s fall season as nuthouse wild-card Randle Patrick McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” he’s throwing himself over the furniture.
While rehearsing a scene that has McMurphy dashing to hide from an aide (played by Scott Warren), Ghant vaults a sofa, with Chief Bromden (played by Jeremy Proulx) following close behind.
One small problem: When the players move from this rehearsal room to the main stage, the lines taped on the floor will be replaced by walls, flats and scrims, and Ghant’s leap may have violated some (currently invisible) scenery.
“Take that superhero move,” says director Susan V. Booth, “and see what it takes to land inside the red line, because I think your butt just broke a window.”
Yes, McMurphy is a rule-breaker, but Ghant doesn’t want to break anything else, particularly Todd Rosenthal’s detailed psychiatric hospital set. On the next try, Ghant lands it inside the lines.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tells the story of McMurphy, a Korean War vet and small-time criminal who rarely stays inside the lines. He finds himself facing a dreary confinement on a work farm and tries to game the system by opting for a stay in a psychiatric hospital instead. His presence triggers a revolution among the put-upon inmates.
Most of us are familiar with the story from watching the 1975 Milos Forman movie, starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. Before the movie, there was a 1963 play, also based on the 1962 Ken Kesey novel. Booth, who is the artistic director of the Alliance Theatre in addition to directing plays, said the theatrical version is perhaps closer to Kesey’s original intent.
“Here’s what Ken Kesey really wanted people to wrestle with,” she said. “What’s the danger of a well-oiled system? And what’s the cost of embracing the role of outlier? What’s the cost of being a rebel?”
Playing that rebel is the veteran Ghant, whose full name is Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant. A product of Tri-Cities High School for the Visual and Performing Arts and a resident of College Park, Ghant is known to Alliance audiences for regularly playing the role of Bob Cratchit in the company’s yearly presentation of “A Christmas Carol.”
He brings a big, charismatic presence to the part, and a new way of thinking about McMurphy.
Casting an African-American in the role adds a new element to the theme of the individual pitted against the system. “We’re at a time right now where there is a big conversation going on around how power structures are perceived by the African-American community,” Booth said. This drama, she said, can shed light on that exchange.
It also gives Ghant the opportunity to reinterpret McMurphy’s trickster character in light of an African archetype that’s been around for centuries.
Ghant sports the Ankh necklace and the studded leather bracelets that would seem right at home in a ’60s coffee shop. To research the role, he interviewed psychiatrists and therapists and hunted down some “smoky, jazzy cats, who would have been in their 30s back then,” studying how they talked, how they stood, how they walked into a room.
The play, like the movie, is an ensemble piece, and this production gathers an accomplished group, including Anthony Rodriguez, producing artistic director at the Aurora Theatre, and Richard Garner, co-founder of the now-defunct Georgia Shakespeare. While the boisterous Ghant commands the stage, plenty of smaller moments and wonderful set-pieces take place around him.
(Don’t miss a hyperventilating Nurse Flinn — played by Ann Marie Gideon — who needs a paper bag to calm herself when a barely clothed McMurphy whips off his towel.)
Booth’s happy task is to give each of these players a moment in the sunshine.
The movie version of the story frequently aims for laughs. The play is no different. Expect a basketball game played by men in their underwear. But, said Booth, “once we have our arms around the audience in that story, we ask them to look at something enormous.”
That enormous, darker theme is the way one man’s sacrifice can transform the world around him. As he goes up against Nurse Ratched (played by Tess Malis Kincaid), “he’s a conduit for greater things for all the patients on the ward,” Ghant said. “By the end of the story, all the patients have been on a journey, everyone’s got an arc, they all land in a different place.”
For McMurphy, that place is a bad place, a loss that makes this story an American tragedy. But what he gives to his colleagues offers a redemption that verges on the universal.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
Opens in previews on Sept. 2 and shows through Sept. 20. Regular showings: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. There will be no 2:30 p.m. performance on Saturday, Sept. 5.
Tickets, $20 and up, at www.alliancetheatre.org/cuckoo. Discounted rates for groups of 10 or more, military, seniors and students; call 404-733-4690. Special performance for school field trips: 11 a.m. Sept. 17. Information: 404-733-4661. Alliance Theatre, in the Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4650, alliancetheatre.org.
The Alliance Theatre has partnered with the Emory University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences to host post-show discussions following most performances of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Dr. Mark H. Rapaport, chair of the Emory University Department of Psychiatry, and other Emory faculty experts who work in the areas of forensic psychiatry, treatment-resistant depression, ethical practices in the field, and other aspects of mental health will discuss a variety of topics looking at the changes and advances in treatment of mental illness since the 1960s.
The conversations are designed to destigmatize mental illness and allow audience members to ask experts questions following performances. Creative Conversations discussions will happen after every performance from Sept. 2-20 except each 2:30 p.m. Saturday performance (when the post-show discussions will be led by members of the “Cuckoo’s Nest” cast). The other exception is the 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9, show.
Creative Conversations and other post-show discussions are free to “Cuckoo’s Nest” ticket holders.
— Helena Oliviero