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No happy ending for 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'

No one really wins in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” unless it’s the Chief.

At least he’s free — of some things.

Opening night of Piedmont Players’ production drew a fair amount of applause, mainly for Bob Paolino, who plays Randle McMurphy, our hero. Park your memories of Jack Nicholson at the door — Paolino is completely different.

“Big Joe” McGee, as Chief Bromden, earned his applause, too.

And the principle “crazies” made a good set, played by Shawn Van Wallendael, Jamison Middlemiss, Paul Zahalsky, Rodney McAllister and Jim Esposito.

Sacha Roberts’ Nurse Ratched, though, was not nearly menacing enough. Stern, yes; a joy-killer, sure, but she never quite pulls off Ratched’s truly vile nature.

After all, Ratched is the real crazy here — the one who keeps the Chief in a catatonic state, the one who tortures Billy beyond his limits, who plays the patients’ weaknesses against each other.

Ratched kills more than joy for all her unfortunate patients.

Then McMurphy shows up, gets her number and sets about to bring her down.

He has a grand old time trying, setting up card games, wagers and a very “against ward policy” party.

He constantly questions the rules, which seem to change moment to moment. He brings some of the patients out of the shells they’ve been beaten into and truly performs therapy on the group.

Not so fast.

The system’s against him. When he finds out many of the patients are there by choice and he’s actually committed, his whole attitude changes. Paolino plays this very well, astonished that anyone would want to be there, dismayed that his idea for getting off the work farm has backfired.

Van Wallendael’s anguished Harding is a good foil for bright and bouncy McMurphy. Middlemiss, as Billy, does vulnerable very well — it really hurts to see him hurt.

In the second act, Zahalsky, McAllister, Esposito and the others come more into their own, embracing their inner loonies.

The first act is a little slow, and the prerecorded thoughts of the chief sounded garbled, taking away some of the impact of his transformation.

A host of other inmates and nurses drift around the day room, displaying various tics on both sides.

Vicious aides Warren and Williams, played with creepy gusto by Jonathan Furr and Travis Stewart, hint at the real horror of the place.

But the horror doesn’t quite blossom like it should. While McMurphy’s keeping it light, there should be a building sense of doom. You should get the feeling the bird in the cage is going to have more than its wings clipped.

McMurphy’s bravado makes the electroshock therapy funny, but it’s an omen.

The set, done in the obligatory institutional green, is suitably depressing, the lighting glaring and punishing when the staff is around.

It’s just that the elements haven’t quite jelled.

There are moments of laughter, rightfully so, and a few moments of acute pain. This is not a play for children, particularly the ending, which, in its own bizarre way, is very fitting.

Director Reid Leonard has assembled a good, experienced cast, and they will likely come together as the performances continue.

The play, abbreviated from Ken Kesey’s novel, loses some of its power as it trims episodes showing McMurphy’s power and Ratched’s wretchedness.

But you’ll get the point. No happy ending here.

Producing partners for the production are KKA Architecture, Brent H. Parks CPA and Woodleaf Lanes. The play continues tonight and Saturday and Feb. 1-3 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, call 704-633-5471.

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