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Nurse Ratched, played by Lily McGill, rules with an iron fist in Theatre Baton Rouge's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'

A World War II veteran in a bridge-building outfit once told me about being trained to move floating pontoon sections. The first lesson involved learning to use the oars while the pontoon was still on dry ground.

The exercise just happened to be next to a mental hospital, whose patients gathered at the fence and stared at this bizarre display — wondering, perhaps, which group more deserved to be institutionalized.

For an equally humorous but more poignant version of this theme, go see “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which opened Friday at Theatre Baton Rouge. This well-performed play, directed by Clay Donaldson, is worth watching even for those familiar with Ken Kesey’s novel or the 1975 movie that starred Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.

Kenneth Mayfield, better known at TBR for his lighting and scenic work, stars as Randall McMurphy, a criminal who has been sent to a mental hospital, which he hopes will let him serve out his statutory rape sentence in relative comfort.

Sociopath that he is, McMurphy also figures he can take advantage of his fellow patients by getting them to gamble away their savings. Some of them seem like easy marks: the educated, paranoid Harding (played by Knick Moore); insecure, stuttering Billy (Austin Ventura); quick-tempered Cheswick (Scott Walsh); delusional Martini (David Hanks); and high-strung Scanlon (Randall Trantham).

Mayfield hits the right notes on both ends of McMurphy’s complicated personality — selfish, yet with compassion for those he thinks are being abused.

The chief abuser is Nurse Ratched (Lily McGill), who intimidates with an iron fist not only the patients but her nominal superior, Dr. Spivey (Brandon Guillory).

McGill plays the role with perfect understatement and a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth smile. Between the way she enjoys exercising power and her assistants' lack of concern for the patients' welfare, the play's unanswered question is whether they are really better off inside the supposedly protective walls.

Moore and Ventura have notable supporting performances, as does Mike Sager as Chief Bromden, the brooding Native American patient who offers a paranoid narration between scenes.

The play runs just short of 2½ hours, with a 20-minute intermission, and the story moves along crisply. There’s a lot of humor, but this is very much a drama, not a comedy, and it’s probably too intense for preteens.


'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'

WHEN: Nov. 8-11, Nov. 15-18. Performances at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. and on Saturday, Nov. 10

WHERE: Theatre Baton Rouge's Main Stage. 7155 Florida Blvd.

TICKETS/INFO: $25; $19, students. (225) 924-6496 or theatrebr.org

Follow George Morris on Twitter, @GWMorris.