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STRONG CAST LIFTS `CUCKOO'S NEST' TO NEW HEIGHTS

Interest in Salt Lake theater has grown dramatically over the past few years. And TheatreWorks West has grown right along with it. Once a small store-front operation manned by true believers, the company now boasts a superb facility (the Jewett Center for the Performing Arts on the Westminster campus), a large audience and a healthier budget.

Like other theater companies in town (Salt Lake Acting Company, Pioneer Theater Company, etc.), TWW has come to mix plays that are money-makers in with more esoteric fare."One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" looks like a guaranteed money-maker. For some reason, people love to see shows they've seen before.

"Cuckoo's Nest" is one of those pieces of modern theater built on an archetypal story. In this case, it is the story of the anti-hero, the soul who seems totally at odds with those around him. Yet after being "martyred," he turns out to be the only sane person in a crazy world. (It is the story of Jesus, of Don Quixote, of Gandhi).

In "Cuckoo's Nest," R.P. McMurphy has been put in a mental institution in the Pacific Northwest. He sees it as easy time compared to the chain gang life. On a bet he tries to revolutionize the facility, take on the head nurse and bring everyone around him out of their stupor.

The play features the ongoing battle - something of a personality prize fight - between McMurphy (played by Tobin Atkinson) and the Nazi-esque Nurse Ratched (Bobbi Fouts).

The question with this production is: Can Atkinson give us a McMurphy that doesn't trade on Jack Nicholson's wiseacre movie version?

The answer is "yes." Atkinson's McMurphy is all Irish - right down to the red hair. He's tough - like the Irish boys who became pugs and policemen in New York

STAGE at the turn of the century - and he's a loud, laughing party boy who kisses the Blarney stone well and often.

As Nurse Ratched, Fouts does a fine job of going one-on-one, but truth to tell, this is McMurphy's show, and Atkinson doesn't let it get away from him.

Yet the best work of the evening is done by the ensemble. Matt Alex is a masterful Dale Harding - effete and afraid. Phil Taylor gives us an incredible Billy and David Carrillo is just right as Chief Bromdem.

In the "old days" you could expect a TheatreWorks West cast to grow weak in the smaller roles. Not here. From Curley Green Jr. and Hayward Buchanan (in double roles as orderlies) to skittish Krista R. Grimmet, nervous Jeffrey Owen, catatonic B.K. Henrie, trampy Dawna Perkins and LuAnn Smith - and all the other winning moments from Gresham Ivey, Skip Atkinson and Beirne Chisolm, this "Cuckoo's Nest" does indeed fly.