PJ Players look to put 'best foot forward' in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'

Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School

SPARTA — Every year, the Pope John Players push the limits when they put on a play.

The group of theater students has put on plays such as “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Sweeney Todd”, and “Othello”, each of which had tall tasks that they were able to overcome and perform at a high level.

Their latest endeavor, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the award-winning play, film and book which they are presenting tonight at 7, Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m., at Pope John XXIII Regional High School, has been a drama of great difficulty. However, they have relished the opportunity to put on their best performance to date after not having done a true drama in two years.

“People come here and expect to see what they have seen in the movie or the play or read in the book, so there are high expectations,” Pope John XXIII Regional High School senior Robert Kerwick said. “I think we have met those expectations and we believe we will put on a show to remember.”

“It’s definitely been a hard, heavy drama,” Pope John senior Margaret Butler said. “Because of that and us not having done one like this in a couple of years, everyone has had to put their best foot forward. It’s been both a challenge and thrill to put on because everyone has come together to create something amazing.”

The Pope John Players are putting on the Dale Wasserman stage adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel, which explores life inside a 1960s psychiatric hospital, closely follows the memorable Academy Award winning film that made the characters of Randle McMurphy, and Nurse Ratched household names. The show is open to the public and tickets cost $10 per person. Area senior citizens are admitted free of charge.

In the film, Jack Nicholson and Louis Fletcher won the Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role for their performances as McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, McMurphy is a criminal who is transferred to the psychiatric hospital, and once in the mental institution, rebels against Nurse Ratched, the oppressive nurse, and rallies up the scared patients.

Kerwick and Butler know that trying to portray these respective lead roles like Nicholson or Fletcher will be incredibly hard to duplicate on stage, but they have embraced the challenge.

“I am not Jack Nicholson, but I am going to try my best to be like him,” Kerwick said. “Having to learn who McMurphy is and how he can jump from being a fine individual to being a complete basket case has been the hardest part, but it’s been a lot of fun.”

“It’s tough because my character has a subtle evil about her and I’m not that type of person,” Butler said. “So, it is twisting my own personality and I’m trying to adopt this character that I am so not used to being. It’s extremely challenging, but it is rewarding as an acting experience.”

Along with these two, the rest of the Pope John Players have found it challenging to bring to light the issues that individuals suffering with mental health and developmental challenges go through on a daily basis while incorporating elements of comedy into the drama.

“After reading the script, you see how it touches so much on modern problems like suicide, mental illness, depression and all that,” said Pope John senior Chase Nugnes, who plays the role of Dale Harding — a well-educated mental patient who has difficulty dealing with his homosexuality and the outside social prejudice against it. “Having to portray those is tough, but we want to raise that awareness so people can understand it.”

However, Pope John Players director Mrs. Jacquelyn Burt believes they will do a wonderful job presenting these issues in their performances over the next three days because they have put in a lot of effort into understanding them.

"It has been amazing to me to watch the students learn about these issues. It is sad to become aware of how little people know about the daily struggles these individuals and their dedicated caregivers face," said Burt, whose crew is donating concession sale proceeds from the show to Andover Nursing Home's psychiatric facility and SCARC.

Along with their desire to learn the problems that mental patients go through, the Pope John Players feel that the on-stage chemistry they have developed will allow them to excel when it comes time to perform tonight and this weekend.

“All the new and young folks came together, grew into their characters and became friends,” said senior Jordan Paladini, who plays the role of Chief Bramden — a huge Native American who everyone thinks is deaf and mute. “We are really close now.”

“When I was younger, I would come to all the shows and be like, ‘Wow! They are good,’” added eighth grade student Peter Cofrancesco IV, who plays the role of Billy Bibbit — a shy, suicidal 30-year-old who has a hard time standing up to people, particularly Nurse Ratched. “Now, I am part of this group and we are interacting with each other all the time. We can’t wait to show how great we are to everybody.”

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