Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mental Illness and the Cuckoo's Nest

I went to see "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" last week at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda. This is the same theatre I saw "Eurydice" at, because of that, I had high hopes for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." And I was not disappointed.

However, the timing on this play may not have been the greatest. Or it was excellent timing, depending on your viewpoint. Before seeing "Cukoo's Nest," I knew almost nothing about it. I'd never read Ken Kessey's novel or seen the movie, which is apparently very good.

So it wasn't until I literally was seated 10 minutes before curtain taht I realized "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest" takes place in a mental institution. And as fate has it, I had spent the majority of my morning trying to get a program participant in touch with mental health services. I honestly think that mental health is the hardest part of my job. I clearly have no background or training in dealing with or diagnosing it. However I am an intuitive person, and I have leaned some of the social cues that tell a person may not be mentally stable. Also, sometimes its very very clear. Such as any day when I get to work at 8:45 and a participant is standing on the porch talking to themselves, mental illness is a pretty easy guess.

So I sat there in the audience, by myself waiting for my friend, and thought, well shoooot. I stared at the set. It was simultaneously very simple and very detailed and very clearly a ward in a mental institution. And I wondered if I was going to be able to handle this, on this of all days. It was just a little close to home.

But my friend arrived with seconds to spare and the lights went out and I was thrust into the world of the play, like any good little theatre major. And it occurs to me that being in the middle of a theatrical experience is the ideal. "All the world's a stage..." and all that. Anything else is sort of just holding place. So as soon as the play started, I was fine.

This production was funny, heartfelt, and ultimately heartbreaking. Because of my lack of knowledge of the plot, I was surprised several times by some twists and turns of the plot. The whole production took place in a single location, in the ward of the institution. This is mostly a blessing I think. It means that a set designer can really go all out because nothing has to move or change. I think unit sets open up a lot of opportunities. And this set didn't break my rule about having a fancy set and not utilizing it. The set was used perfectly.

I think that I came into this play not expecting such a touching story. The characters are all well fleshed out, and there was not a weak actor in the bunch. Not one of the actors playing the patients was just going for laughs, which could have been a temptation for a lesser production. Instead, they had developed deep thoughtful characters whose character quirks felt like a part of their real life experiences and illness. Often characters in the background were in danger of stealing the show, but in a good, balanced way. The characters in this story are not black and white; there is no clear villain. Horrible things happen, but does anyone really mean to do them? The realism throughout was bleak and startling.

During and after watching this play I got a little worked up about the way we used to treat mental illness in this country and the way we do now. From what I understand about this which is not extensive, is that in the 1960's the Community Mental Heath Act was passed which resulted in deinstitutionalization, which was a factor in the biggest numbers of homelessness that our nation had ever seen. This is something we are still feeling the repercussions of now. Now in Washigton DC, there are a number of places that serve those with mental illness, but getting those who need these services connected is an unbelievable problem.

This leads me back to where I was the morning before I saw this play. I convinced the program participant I was working with to call the Access Help line and get an intake appointment. The soonest he could get in was two weeks. Now I haven't seen him in almost a week, and I don't think he's going to make his appointment tomorrow. But I'm not giving up. I won the initial round. I got him to make the call, to trust me, and to try getting connected. Maybe he'll come back next week or next month and try again. Maybe he'll remember us and his positive experience and come again in 5 months. Who knows? And at this point I did what I can so for him.

I'm glad that this play was performed. I don't always believe that theatre has to be timely or topical in order to be important. Often I get annoyed by this view of theatre. However, I do think that "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest" had a lot to say that is applicable to what is happening in our country right now.

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