‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ strives for authenticity at Western Reserve Playhouse

Western Reserve Playhouse director Brian Westerley decided there was no better time to produce the searing drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestthan during Mental Health Awareness Month.

The classic play by Dale Wasserman, based on the book by Ken Kesey, follows the rebellious McMurphy, who plans to spend a short sentence in a mental institution rather than prison. He clashes with Nurse Ratched and soon leads the other patients out of their introversion in a revolt to watch the World Series on TV as well as a late-night party with booze and women. Catatonic character Chief Bromden (Dennis Burby) is the story’s narrator, speaking only to the audience.

The show, which has long been on Westerley’s bucket list to direct, runs Friday through May 26 at the theater at 3326 Everett Road, Bath.

Sean Blake, a licensed professional clinical counselor who is vice president of clinical outpatient services at Portage Path Behavioral Health, will be a part of talk-backs with the cast after the Saturday show, as well as the May 20 and May 25 performances. His organization will have an informational table at the back of the theater.

“Hopefully, it’s to educate people that mental illness is an illness, it’s not something to laugh at,’’ Westerley said. “It’s not funny. The humor comes from the writing of the script but it shouldn’t be caricatures bouncing all over the walls. I always say these are people with mental illnesses, rather than mental illnesses masquerading as people.”

The drama contains adult language and themes. Leading this story of a battle of wills is Ryan Rasnick as McMurphy and April Deming as Ratched.

“As soon as he walked in the door, he had this charisma,’’ Westerley said of Rasnick, who plays a charming rogue.

The director said he also looked the part because he has red hair as specified in the book.

Rasnick, originally from Monroeville, Ohio, is making his stage debut. He is an Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq and has experience with spoken word poem readings and open mic comedies.

Westerley encouraged his cast to read Kesey’s book and look for clues for their characters’ diagnoses. That research was followed up by seals of approval from Blake, in an effort to make the characters authentic. Blake helped Westerley key in on important staging details, including the fact that the mental institution would not have art on the walls because it could be used as a weapon.

The 15-member cast also toured Portage Path’s Psychiatric Emergency Services ward in Akron to see what a ward was like and to ask questions of both Blake and Candace Pallante, vice president of Psychiatric Emergency Services.

“I definitely wanted to make sure I did my homework on this one,’’ Westerley said. “It was sobering for a lot of us.”

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