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Amy Morton Feathers Her Cuckoo's Nest

The actress tells Lawrence Bommer that playing Nurse Ratched doesn't mean you've flown the coop. logo

Wretched as Ratched:
Actress Amy Morton of
One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest
Chicago favorite Amy Morton brings a volatile mix to her supple art. Beginning with her exciting early work in Chicago with William L. Petersen and the famed Remains Theatre, Morton has cultivated a cunningly covert acting style; her still waters run very deep. Nothing about her deceptively quiet stage style is blatant or predictable. That's why playing the elaborately evil Nurse Ratched in Steppenwolf Theatre's revival of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, opening April 16, is definitely casting against type.

Morton may be better known for appearing in the Nicholas Cage thriller 8MM but her roots go deep into theater, specifically the rock 'n roll Chicago style. Most recently seen in Tina Landau's Space at New York's Joseph Papp Public Theater, Morton has been a pillar of support in such Steppenwolf productions as Three Days of Rain, The Berlin Cycle, The Memory of Water, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Cryptogram. A Steppenwolf Artistic Associate, Morton directed the taut Mizlansky/Zilinski by Jon Robin Baitz in the Studio, and will direct Connor McPherson's The Weir during the company's upcoming 25th season.

Terry Kinney's staging of Cuckoo's Nest (which employs the famous Dale Wasserman adaptation) may well put both Morton and the audience through an emotional roller coaster. The villainess in Ken Kesey's seminal 1962 novel, Nurse Ratched has terrorized two generations as the embodiment of institutional cruelty. Set in a very metaphorical mental institution, the action focuses on Randle McMurphy (played by Steppenwolf co-founder Gary Sinise), a brash new inmate who teaches the cowed patient-inmates to stand up and fight back. If sanity means conformity, McMurphy pursues the craziness of freedom even if it kills him.

McMurphy's natural and medical enemy is, of course, Nurse Ratched. As memorably played by Louise Fletcher in the celebrated 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson as a sardonic McMurphy, Ratched became the archetype of humorless inflexibility, gratuitous malice, and sexual repression. For Kesey, Ratched was everything that the free-loving, do-your-own-thing '60s was up against. Armed with her ferocious, guard dog-like orderlies, Ratched could sedate unruly patients, send them into solitary confinement, or, as in the case of sensitive Billy Bibbitt (Eric Johner), her surrogate son and inevitable victim, terrify them into suicide.

Audiences love to hate Nurse Ratched but actors like to be loved or at least love to be liked. This creates a conflict for an actor--or at least one would think so, since playing this vicious "caregiver" takes nerves of steel, an affinity for a fusion of sadism and masochism, and a willingness to endure lacerating self-exposure. The soft-spoken Morton would seem to be swimming against her tide. Or is she?

Well, perhaps not. Morton contends that it's enough of a challenge just to play the part--an amalgam of Miss Margarida, Hedda Gabler, and Regina Hubbard--rather than worry about whether the role makes her popular. Besides, Nurse Ratched is not beyond the pale: "It wouldn't be wise for me to be a total villain. Of course, she's not like anyone I know. I've never played a character who's this screwed up. In most shows, I'm rarely the bad guy. I'm just hoping I get it right. Hopefully I'll find a balance where you can hate her and still understand what makes her so sadistic," Morton says.

Which is what? "Well, she suffers from the big double standard: If you're a strong woman, you're a bitch, but if you're a strong man, you're a hero. In a way she's a victim of the bureaucracy of the system. You can hear it in the language that she speaks; it's highly formal and strict in tone, with self-consciously big words. But I don't believe her intentions are evil. It's just that the arrival of McMurphy--someone who's utterly unrehearsed and spontaneous and has a sense of humor--disrupts the rhythm of therapy as she knows it. He must be stopped."

It's a shame, Morton adds, that Ratched and McMurphy must be matter and anti-matter. "Of course, they're so extreme that there's no common ground. But they also have their good points. If they could only become person they'd be invincible. She's so disciplined; he's such a loose cannon. They deserve each other."

You also have to remember the content of time, Morton cautions. Back when Cuckoo's Nest was first written, "group therapy was very heavy on making judgments on human behavior," Morton says. "[Nurse Ratched] was so judgmental that she couldn't help screwing somebody up. Today, that's changed." Arguably, one thing that hasn't changed is electroshock "therapy," but even so it's much less pervasive a treatment than during the '50s.

To prepare their cuckoo's nest, in February the cast took part in a workshop where they mixed with real psychiatric patients and nurses at a halfway home. The discoveries fit the play: "Doctors never know as much about the patients as the nurses. The ones I talked to also made it very clear that Nurse Ratched is not a good nurse. They don't approve of what she did. But one nurse admitted she knew nurses like her. She worked in the '60s and had a boss who everyone feared," Morton says.

On the last day of the workshop the actors conducted a group therapy session with everyone staying in character: "I realized that the main priority for Nurse Ratched is to keep control. You never have time for the therapy itself. You freak out about trying to keep control of the room. I was always threatening to kick people out. If they wanted to come back in, they could come back, but if they made any noise, they were out again. It's not so much a matter of hating the patients but of maintaining discipline. As you watch patients and nurses working together, you realize there's a very fine line between sanity and insanity."

Of course, anyone playing Nurse Ratched must struggle under the shadow of Louise Fletcher's Oscar-worthy performance. "I haven't seen the film since it first came out," Morton says. "Of course I can't forget what she did. Basically, I'm approaching it as I do any role. It's still me under imaginary circumstances. So I ask what I would do under these circumstances, given my character's history. I'm not consciously imitating Fletcher. I'm just trying to stay true to the play."

And the process of doing just that, she says, has been strangely fun. "I'm having a blast. It's a bit of a power trip. I've taken a certain amount of ribbing, but whenever I'm on stage I'm surrounded by two very large orderlies who do my bidding and they quickly respect me. It also helps to be part of a phenomenal cast. When these loonies let loose on stage, it's hilarious, but it's also very touching because the play speaks to our need for compassion and freedom."

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