Insanity is an irresistible metaphor except for those who've seen it close up. Our culture is filled with tales of madmen who are saner than the society that imprisons them, complete breakdowns that turn out to be creative breakthroughs, inner chaos that's more lovely and liberating than order could ever be.
Two of these tales are onstage now in the Berkshires: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and "Blue/Orange" at Shakespeare & Company. Each production is strong and interesting in its own way. Seeing them on successive nights, however, left me repeating an old lament: If only mental illness were as fascinating, artful, and life-enhancing as it sometimes looks onstage.
Those of us who have endured the disability of a beloved relative know better. We know that while people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or severe depression may have flashes of creative genius and almost spooky moments of intellectual and emotional insight, the facts of their illness are scary, repetitive, and debilitating. In the long run, it doesn't lift you up to be crazy; it wears you down. And so, try as we might to surrender to the power of psychosis as a symbol, we just can't stop noticing the difference between reality and fantasy.
Of course, our obsession with that distinction -- with knowing exactly what's real and what isn't -- may be just one more result of our excessive familiarity with people who can't tell the difference. Trust me: If you grow up hearing that Queen Elizabeth sometimes visits your mother for tea, you become very, very concerned as an adult with knowing that all of your own visitors really do exist.
You also become pretty impatient with people who see mental illness as an interesting quirk or, worse, as some kind of bizarre gift. My mother had many gifts, but I do not think she would count among them the diagnosis she received at age 20 of paranoid schizophrenia, which led to 12 years of institutionalization in some of the nation's finest private hospitals, insulin shock therapy, hydrotherapy, electroshock therapy, and more.
Then came Thorazine, to be followed later by Stelazine, Haldol, and, by the time Mom's diagnosis had been refined to "schizoaffective disorder," Clozaril. What also came -- incredibly, if you look at it after that litany, yet here I am to prove it -- were a husband, four children, and a poodle.
She baked brownies. She was a room mother. She liked Perry Como. And if her illness sometimes won out over her medications, if her fondness for Billy Graham sometimes blossomed into bizarre religious obsessions or her soft humming turned into muttered arguments with the voices only she could hear, things were nevertheless "normal" enough that we kids could accept, until we got a little older, our father's explanation for any oddities we observed: "Your mother gets upset easily."
Anyway, all of this (to say nothing of the handful of relatives, on both sides of the family tree, who are bipolar or depressed) renders me pretty much incapable of responding to plays about insanity in an impersonal way. But it has also taught me how the many forms that mental illness can take are at once weirder and more banal, more interesting and less fascinating, than the "craziness" we see in most books, movies, and plays.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which Dale Wasserman adapted for the stage from Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, is almost comically dismissive of the purported insanity of its characters. To begin with, the central figure, Randle P. McMurphy (transformed into a pop icon by Jack Nicholson's ferociously free performance in Milos Forman's 1975 film), isn't crazy at all. He's just a con artist, a small-time troublemaker who pleads insanity because he figures the asylum will be cushier than the workfarm.
Bad move, to say the least. But it does give us the alluring figure of a wild man who's saner than his keepers, a symbol of liberation from repressive social mores so appealing that it has outlasted the rebellious era in which it was born. If anything, McMurphy feels more essential now than ever, a brave fighter for freedom against the tyranny of conformity.
But he also has absolutely nothing to do with the realities of mental illness. More troublingly, neither do his fellow patients, each of whom, as the story goes on, reveal themselves to be not mentally ill but sexually conflicted, maternally smothered, or culturally oppressed. They are cartoonish victims of society, not complicated people with troubled lives of their own.
To his credit, Wasserman sticks close to the novel in his adaptation, most significantly retaining the narrator, Chief Bromden, and allowing us to hear his fears about the "Combine" that rules the world as the product of paranoia, not just a metaphor of social control. This ambiguity, especially in the young Austin Durant's restrained, powerful performance, brings welcome shadows to Kesey's willfully anarchic message: Kesey wants us to cheer the Native American Chief as he sheds the shackles of racist oppression, but here we can see that Bromden's story could never be that simple.
Still, no amount of actor's nuance or director's subtlety can shade the essential bluntness of Kesey's view: freedom good, repression bad. And time has only sharpened the realization of how nasty he is about women. Not for nothing has Nurse Ratched become one of the most hated villains of all time: She is completely, irredeemably, and unbelievably evil.
Linda Hamilton takes a different tack from the iron-ribbed approach that earned Louise Fletcher an Oscar. She's sickly sweet, cloyingly manipulative, cooing her lilting commands to take medication or meet for group therapy. At times this queasy softness throws off the balance of power between Nurse Ratched and the volcanic life force that is McMurphy -- when Hamilton enters the climactic scene of a forbidden, boozy party, we don't even notice her at first amid the chaos -- but at its best it feels more sneakily menacing than a direct assault would be.
Jonathan Epstein's McMurphy is the real star here, of course. In hideous mutton-chop sideburns and frizzy red hair, Epstein takes over the stage from the moment he walks on. He's scuzzy, energized, and faintly ridiculous -- everything McMurphy should be, everything he needs to be if we're to have any hope of buying this celebration of chaos. And, because we know he really isn't crazy and because Eric Hill's direction keeps us gliding past the absurdities, it's almost persuasive.
Things are more complicated over at Shakespeare & Company, where Timothy Douglas directs a spare, effective staging of "Blue/Orange," Joe Penhall's 2000 London hit about racism and bureaucracy in a British mental ward. Christopher, a black fruit vendor, played with precision and fury by LeRoy McClain, has been confined for 28 days' observation, and now his doctors -- both white, but with Malcolm Ingram's cynical Robert older and more concerned with hospital politics, and Jason Asprey's passionate Bruce younger and more fearful of releasing a dangerous man -- are arguing about whether he's insane or just, very sanely, enraged by the way a racist society treats him.
Unlike "Cuckoo's Nest," this play never forces us to choose between those two possibilities. The man says he's the son of Idi Amin -- crazy, right? But isn't it just possible? He thinks people are watching him all the time -- paranoid, or just observing whites' paranoia toward black men? Or, most intriguingly, what if he's crazy and right? What if people really are staring at him, but he's giving them good reason to?
In the exchange that gives the play its title, Bruce hands Christopher an orange and asks what color it is. "Blue." But maybe he's familiar with a French poem that used that image. Or maybe, Robert suggests, Bruce planted the idea in his brain.
Round and round they go, in a disorienting but satisfying dance that carries us along through all its shifting perspectives. By the end, we hardly know what to think anymore -- and that gives us plenty to think about. If the play is ultimately more about racial tensions and social responses to them than it is about mental illness, at least it doesn't reduce the messy, miserable realities of insanity to a deceptively simple and attractive symbol.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.