A Nest of Chicago: Steppenwolf Looks at McMurphy

A Nest of Chicago: Steppenwolf Looks at McMurphy “You know, we probably have a few McMurphys in our group,” concedes Terry Kinney after rolling the matter around in his mind a few minutes. “We’re such a—I don’t know how to put it—such a testosterone-based group.” Since that “group” happens to be Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Kinney can crow in good conscience.
Gary Sinise (center) and the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Gary Sinise (center) and the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Photo by Photo by Tristram Kenton)

“You know, we probably have a few McMurphys in our group,” concedes Terry Kinney after rolling the matter around in his mind a few minutes. “We’re such a—I don’t know how to put it—such a testosterone-based group.” Since that “group” happens to be Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Kinney can crow in good conscience.

Male charisma has been the specialty of the house since this distinguished theatrical troupe formed in 1976. Now, Kinney is celebrating that commodity—and the company’s silver anniversary—by directing the first Broadway revival of Dale Wasserman’s 1963 adaptation of the 1962 cult novel by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Leading the charge against the Establishment at the Royale Theatre—as he did last April on Steppenwolf’s home turf—is Gary Sinise, playing one Randle Patrick McMurphy, a freshly committed, but tragically sane firebrand who stirs a ward full of asylum inmates to rebel against their tyrannical Nurse Ratched and the rigid living conditions she imposes. “Gary was born to play this part,” says Kinney without hesitation. “We smashed the box-office records in Chicago, and I do think Gary’s participation had a lot to do with that. He is known among people in the theatre as someone who went on from theatre but who is basically in and of the theatre. His entire commitment—as well as mine—is to the theatre.”

Within that commitment the two switch hats. In 25 years they’ve collaborated several times—from The Indian Wants the Bronx to Loose Ends—with one forever directing the other. “We’re always looking for something to put each other in,” says Kinney, “constantly calling each other, saying, ‘Why don’t you direct me in this?’”

It’s a compatible partnership, agrees Sinise. “We’re very different personalities, but artistically we have a lot in common. We love working together. Like any long-time collaboration, it just makes things easier.” Sinise and Kinney met in the summer of ’74 when Kinney spent his break away from Illinois State University doing The Player King to Jeff Perry and Sinise’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It went so well that the three started making plans to start a theatrical troupe—which they did two years later with the help of six other founders. And, when they needed a name for the group, Rick Orgosh suggested the title of the Herman Hesse novel he was reading. Steppenwolf swept beyond Chicago city limits and hit New York eight years later with Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, directed by fellow founding father John Malkovich and starring Sinise, Kinney and Perry, along with Glenne Headly and Laurie Metcalf. Later in 1983, Kinney directed another wave of Chicago actors to the New York high ground in a lilting version of C.P. Taylor’s And a Nightingale Sang . . .—among them, Moira Harris (Mrs. Sinise), Peter Friedman and an exquisite Joan Allen. Then, Sinise and Malkovich pulled off (under Sinise’s direction) a vivid resurrection of True West, a Sam Shepard play that had failed in its N.Y. debut when presented by Joe Papp. That success solidified Steppenwolf’s rep.

When the company attempted Broadway—with director Frank Galati’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath—they took the John Steinbeck novel beyond John Ford’s famous film and won the 1990 Tony for Best Play. Kinney and Sinise were prominent among the uprooted Okies (Jim Casy and Tom Joad, respectively).

In most of the above, Steppenwolf has brought out a dimension in an established property that wasn’t there before. “What we try to do is give a new look at material that people are familiar with,” says Sinise of Grapes and Cuckoo’s Nest.

If the latter appears suddenly fresh, that’s because it was a popular movie made by Milos Forman, who transformed the hit play into an Oscar-winning Best Picture in 1976. But, says Sinise, “The difference between the play and film is what made this interesting for us—and a challenge because both Terry and I love the movie. People familiar with the movie will experience the story in a different way because the point of view of the play, like the book’s, is through the Chief Bromden character, and the character of McMurphy is quite different. He’s still a con man—but in the book he’s more of a cowboy, more of a rough-riding cowboy, and Wasserman retained that spirit.”

This plays right into Kinney’s hands. “What’s great about it,” says the director, “is that there’s a sense of cowboy western mythology here: a narcissus who is trying to take all the money and get out of town, then gets to know some of the townspeople—he meets the local sheriff and doesn’t like him, but he doesn’t care because he can still get his money and save himself. But something finally draws him to the weaker townspeople. It has the thing of the narcissus sacrificing himself for his buddy. That moment when ‘I becomes We’ is always so moving to me. I’ve seen these guys do the play many times, and I don’t get tired of it. It’s a very energizing experience. It makes you enthusiastic about people.”

—Harry Haun