|William Devane, Janet Ward.|
|Janet Ward, William Devane, and inmates. Danny DeVito is at the rear, smiling.|
Dale Wasserman’s play had been an 82-performance flop on Broadway in 1963, even with the potential draw of film star Kirk Douglas in the role of McMurphy. Revived Off Broadway with a little-known cast and in a partly rewritten version, the work developed into one of the decade’s most memorable hits, followed in 1975 by becoming one of the decade’s classic films, starring Jack Nicholson.
Audiences, especially youthful ones, found a potent message in this story about an individualistic rebel fighting back against the forces of repression. The conflict is symbolized by McMurphy’s (William Devane) struggle to subjugate the evil nurse Ratched (Janet Ward)—a character given her own Netflix series in 2020—who runs her ward at a mental institution with a mailed fist.
|Janet Ward, John Redwood, William Devane, William Burns.|
Clive Barnes argued that the realistic presentation of the mental hospital robbed the play of credibility, as the goings-on in the ward were too farfetched to apply to any actual institution. A Kafkaesque environment and style, he felt, would have made the theme’s symbolic relevance clearer. Still, the dramatic metaphor moved him in a “powerful” and “attractive” way. “You feel for McMurphy and you want him to strike a blow for humanity. Even his gross and ludicrous posturing becomes appealing, if only because it shows a man against a system.” With the strong job by Devane (who went on to a successful career on stage and screen), and a well-directed production, Cuckoo’s Nest ran for almost three years, during which there were multiple cast changes.
Actors in the revival’s first cast included William Duff-Griffin as Charles Atkins Cheswick III William Burns as Chief Bronden, and Danny DeVito as Anthony Martini. During the run, Devane was replaced by Lane Smith, George Welbes, and Kevin Conway.