ST. PETERSBURG — There's a moment in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that will make your heart rate speed, make your fingers curl around the arms of the chair, and you won't know exactly why.
Then you'll realize that the mammoth and silent Chief Bromden has been standing over the room like some kind of prehistoric monument while the other characters ping dialogue, swishing his broom slowly, then faster, faster, swish, swish, swish across the dusty floor. Then as the talking stops, the swishing stops.
There are moments when you aren't breathing.
Get ready to be emotionally devastated, everyone. Cuckoo's Nest at Freefall Theatre is a triumph of tension, acted with swagger, humor and crushing purpose.
Director Eric Davis has staged Dale Wasserman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel immersively. The audience sits in the mental institution among the patients. They perch on vinyl cream couches, on orange stacking chairs, on velvet arm chairs. Some even settle on a concrete ledge inches from where Rick Stutzel plays the lobotomized Ruckly, hanging like a crucified Jesus Christ.
There isn't really a bad seat in the house, but get there early to pick. Freefall opens the door first to subscribers as a perk, then to everyone else. You could end up wedged in the back, and while it won't make the experience bad, it's more fun to be front and center.
It takes a minute to get acclimated. There's a punching bag in one corner, a nurse's station in another, a round card table in another, a raised platform in the middle. The action unfolds throughout the room, so even if you think you're facing backward, don't worry. It'll make sense.
The set by Steve Mitchell is absolutely professional, with windows that seem to open into the night, boiler rooms and bathrooms on the fringes. The lighting by Mike Wood is essential, whether it's flickering overhead fluorescents casting a wan sickness, or flashing reds when one patient flies into an episode of post traumatic stress disorder.
The cast of 16 is fully committed (no pun intended, really). A thunderstorm blew outside during Sunday's performance and Greyson Lewis, who plays the tragic Billy Bibbitt, shook and shuddered when the thunder cracked.
Michael Nichols brings heartbreaking tenderness to Chief Bromden. It may help that he played Chief Bromden's understudy in the 2001 Broadway revival of Cuckoo's Nest starring Gary Sinise. His eyes are hollow until they are not, and if you're close enough to catch those flickers, it's electric. Bromden is huge, but he is small.
Roxanne Fay is super scary as the scariest nurse of all time, Nurse Ratched. During rehearsals, Fay described her approach to Ratched as wrought through "very full silences," and she is right. Ratched is small, but she is huge.
James Oliver as Randle P. McMurphy is the show's lifeblood. Oliver, a 1970s film buff who has seen the Jack Nicholson performance over and over, was able to cast aside what he knew of the film and create something fresh. His McMurphy is brash roustabout, a cowboy shooting up a slick city where rigid order reigns. His energy never flags.
After some time cutting up with the guys in the ward, intermission comes, and the sense of doom starts to set in. This is classic literature. If you're even half-familiar with the story, you know what's coming. It's beautiful in many ways, but it ain't pretty.
A truly great retelling of a classic has you praying it can still be different. Maybe you remembered it wrong. Maybe things can change. In the end, that's the enduring message of Cuckoo's Nest that makes it important in 2014, makes placing the audience in the story significant.
Change is always up to you.
Contact Stephanie Hayes at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.