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Imagine the mental ward of a 1950s asylum. Then imagine a sadistic nurse running the show, debasing the patients. Her tyranny is backed by the implied threat of electroshock therapy and even lobotomy.

Into Nurse Ratched’s ward, Randle Patrick McMurphy lands like a Fourth of July fireworks show. Having wangled a transfer from a work farm to what he considers a more cushy situation, he starts shaking up the patients, encouraging them to stand up for themselves. His rebel spirit leads him into direct confrontation with the Big Nurse. And thereby hangs the tale. Experienced director Todd Starkey orchestrates the running conflict.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” runs weekends March 5 to 20 at Tidewater Players, upstairs at 121 N. Union Ave. in Havre de Grace. Shows are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10. Visit www.tidewaterplayers.com or call 410-939-5046. The Dale Wasserman play is based on Ken Kesey’s 1960s novel of the same name.

Armed with an infectious grin and a natural tendency to challenge authority, Greg Bell plays McMurphy. He claims that the character is not so different from himself.

“He’s gregarious and loud, but lovable - all qualities a good con man should have,” said Bell. “I can be loud. I can be very gregarious. I can be lovable.

“McMurphy develops a kind of affection for the guys on the ward. He throws himself on the sword for these guys at the end. I do that all the time. I put my own self to the side for my family and friends.”

His opponent, Nurse Ratched, is played by Kate Volpe, of Bel Air, who recently played the hussy Nancy in “Gaslight” at Spotlighters in Baltimore. She described Ratched as “dark and twisty,” showing a public face of understanding and kindness, which masks the ruthless tactics she uses to keep the patients cowed.

“She’s very manipulative. She isn’t used to anyone challenging her ultimate authority. She’s confident that she is in charge of everything in her ward,” said Volpe.

“I love the fact that she’s not at all like me. It’s a wonderful challenge,” she said. “When friends found out that I got the role, they said I would giggle. But I’m practicing my icy stare.”

Volpe, who works at a day spa doing facials, waxing and makeup, will have no problem doing her own makeup for the show. The role calls for “bloody mouth and nails.”

Last seen locally as Vinnie in Tidewater’s “Odd Couple,” Chris Murray plays Harding, considered the “bull goose loony” in the ward.
“The play is an ensemble piece,” he said. “All the characters develop throughout the play. McMurphy changes things. My character becomes stronger.”

Murray said he got into theater five years ago when he took his son Nick, then 10, to try out for “Oliver” at the Avondale (Pa.) Community Theater. His son was cast as one of Fagin’s gang and Murray, to his surprise, became Fagin.

“I got bit by the ‘bug,’” he said. “Three years ago, I did the role of Harding for the Wilmington Drama League. I had done only musicals before that. It was my first ‘straight’ show.”

Patients in the ward are in two groups, the Chronics (walkers, wheelers, vegetables) and the Acutes, who may return to society some day. Among the Chronics is the huge Columbia River Indian, Chief Bromden, played by Chip Meister, who’s 6 feet, four inches tall.

“The staff and the other patients think he is deaf and dumb and catatonic,” said Meister. “He doesn’t interact with anybody and is totally withdrawn. Really, he’s afraid of everything. He thinks the modern world is run by this thing called the Combine. Agents of the Combine perform operations on people. They tear out their guts and replace them with machinery.”

Jeffrey Sexton, of Aberdeen, a paramedic for the Havre de Grace Ambulance Corps, plays shy and suicidal Billy Bibbitt. Paul Penrod, of Bel Air, plays Scanlon, who is trying to build a bomb. David Rusinko, of Bel Air, plays Cheswick, who flies into sudden rages. Robert Oppel’s Martini is in a world of his own. As Ruckley, Tidewater veteran Ken Williamson thinks his hands are nailed to the wall. Other patients played by Randy Conlon, Dave Hoover and Donnie Lewis have their own problems.

As Candy, Dawn Rowles, of Forest Hill, shakes up the inmates when she pays a visit to her boyfriend, McMurphy. She’s later joined by party girl Sandra, played by Judy Scott, of Abingdon.

As Dr. Spivey, Michael Collins is pretty much under Ratched’s thumb. Flinn, Ratched’s insecure assistant, is played by Denise Rogers. Ward attendants Warren and Williams, played by Rondy Vick and Guy Wellman, follow Ratched’s lead in bullying the inmates.

Just for fun, know that Jack Nicholson played McMurphy in the 1975 film. Danny DeVito played Martini Off Broadway in 1971. And Gene Wilder played Billy Bibbitt in the 1963 Broadway premiere.

The title of the play comes from a children’s folk rhyme that goes, “Three geese in a flock, one flew east, one flew west, and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

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