Walt Willey tries to compare himself to Randle P. McMurphy, whom he will portray in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
It doesn't go too well.
"I'm very much a rule follower. I try to make sure I'm not late. I don't park in 'No Parking' zones. I'm a Midwestern rule follower. I'm very different than McMurphy," said the Ottawa actor, who also will direct the production for Willey World Community Productions.
But that's why an actor acts, and a reason why WilleyWorld performers and crew will present the drama, which will run Thursday, April 23, through Sunday, April 26, in the 807 Building Performance Space, 807 La Salle St., Ottawa.
"You rehearse in the basement. When you get up there on stage, that's when you really feel it," said Joe Bantista, an Ottawa resident who will portray Chief Bromden, one of the pivotal characters in "Cuckoo's Nest."
Since February, the actors have indeed been working in a basement — the one in Trinity Lutheran Church, on Ottawa's South Side. It's a great distance from the state mental hospital where the play takes place.
"Cuckoo's Nest" follows the exploits of McMurphy, a criminal transferred from a prison work farm to a mental institution. It details the relationship between McMurphy and fellow patients, Chief included, as well as his constant battles with Nurse Ratched, a no-nonsense woman who runs the ward.
"Everything has to be in order and McMurphy is all about breaking the rules," said Seneca's Kelly Johnson, who portrays Ratched.
When audience members attend shows in the 807 Building, ticket takers and concessionaires will be dressed in hospital scrubs. The set itself will be look as much like an institution as possible.
"We have to make them feel they are in that world," Willey said. "Seeing a live production is more exciting than seeing a film. Those are real people up there on stage."
The play was written by Dale Wasserman, adapted from the book by Ken Kesey. Yet when most people think of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the primary thought is "film" rather than "book" or "play."
Jack Nicholson portrayed McMurphy in the 1975 movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next," earning a Best Actor Oscar. Louise Fletcher won Best Actress for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched, Milos Forman was awarded Best Director and the movie itself earned Best Picture.
"The challenge is to make it fresh, since it was an iconic film. People have a certain expectation. (When) doing a regional theater production, you have to keep that in mind," Willey said.
WilleyWorld has staged plays in Ottawa for six years, always prior to Riverfest. "Cuckoo's Nest" will be the first play of the 2015 season.
"We wanted to expand to include drama," Willey said. "The shows that work here are the ones adapted into successful films."
The former "All My Children" cast member had to step in to lead "Cuckoo's Nest" after the original director dropped out.
"It's tough to direct, but I have a great cast and production crew," Willey said.
Several cast members also performed in "Auntie Mame," last summer's WilleyWorld play, and are glad to be part of this show.
"I knew last summer Walt was considering doing this show. When I showed up for ('Cuckoo's Nest') auditions, he said, "I'm glad you're here.' I think he had me in mind," Johnson said.
Willey admitted that due to his height, he originally thought he would play the physically intimidating Chief. He did not know Bantista, who showed up at auditions earlier this year at Ottawa Dance Academy.
"This is something of a hobby," said Bantista, who still works full time and hadn't acted in several years. "It was more me wanting to work with Walt. I wanted to see him at his work."
"I thought he was there to pick up his granddaughter at the Dance Academy," Willey remembers about meeting Bantisa. "I was lucky to see him."
On the road again
One year ago, Christopher A. Harkins was a Chicago attorney who had never acted on stage. Then the Wedron native got a part in "Auntie Mame," and began commuting to rehearsals several times a week.
"I'm a lawyer by trade, so I guess I've acted in court quite a bit," said the Serena High School and Illinois State University graduate, who now lives in Bloomington, and makes a different commute to "Cuckoo's Nest" rehearsals.
"I did it to be able to work and learn from Walt Willey. It's exceeded my expectations immensely," Harkins said.
Harkins portrays patient Dale Harding, whom he describes as a well-educated control freak who struggles with his masculinity. He earns respect as president of the Patients Council, and gains confidence when McMurphy arrives.
"A guy like McMurphy did more as therapy than did any other doctor or nurse. McMurphy has opened the door to the outside world. (Harding) gets back his swagger," Harkins said.
Johnson echoes Harkins' admiration of the closeness of the "Cuckoo's Nest" cast.
"Everyone is very cooperative, and we have good rapport," she said.
When it debuted in 1963, "Cuckoo's Nest" stirred controversy, due in part to its coarse language. For the Ottawa production, many of those words have been toned down.
"It's not shocking anymore. It loses its purpose. It's lost its shock value, so why do it?" Willey said.
Although "Cuckoo's Nest" has its share of humorous moments, there's a dark aspect that's especially evident in the near its end.
"Those who do know it understand it's a 'dramedy' — a drama and a comedy. People who aren't familiar are going to expect it to be a comedy will be surprised at the dramatic aspect," Johnson said.
"This is very thought-provoking. I get a lot of life lessons from this play," Harkins said.
As for audience members? "They'll be able to see themselves in almost every character."
Willey hopes the production will make people think.
"is McMurphy crazy? Is he the craziest one in there? I hope people walk away from the play and that's one of their questions," he said.
Perhaps along with: Is Walt Willey much like Randle P. McMurphy?
In the 'Nest"
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" cast members, listed by part and hometown, include: Walt Willey, Ottawa, Randle P. McMurphy; Kelly Johnson, Seneca, Nurse Ratched; Christopher Harkins, Bloomington, Dale Harding; Joe Bantista, Ottawa, Chief Bromden; Terry Thompson, Ottawa, Dr. Spivey; Chance Willey, Ottawa, Billy Bibbitt; Jacob Montgomery, Ottawa, Anthony Martini; Karly Swords, Ottawa, Nurse Flinn; Deb Torri, Morris, Candy; Anthony T. Epperson, Ottawa, Aide Warren; Darlene Halm, Ottawa, Nurse/Tech 1; Carol McConville, Ottawa, Nurse/Tech 2; Brian Rehor, Utica, Frank Scanlon; Brandon Miller, Ottawa, Aide Williams; Brenda Lynn Smiley, Ottawa, Sandy; Lloyd Chapman, Ottawa, Charlie Cheswick; Steve Stout, Utica, Ruckley.
- "ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST," a WilleyWorld Community Productions drama, will be presented Thursday, April 23, through Sunday, April 26.
- PERFORMANCES WILL BE STAGED at the 807 Building Performance Space, 807 La Salle St., Ottawa, 7:30 p.m. Thursday though Saturday, April 25 and 2 p.m. Sunday.
- TICKETS, $20 in advance and $25 at the door, are on sale through the Ottawa Visitors Center, 815-434-2737, and its website, pickusottawail.com.