Neal Ghant steps into Jack Nicholson’s iconic Cuckoo’s Nest role

The classic show runs at the Alliance Theatre from September 2 through 20
Neal Ghant
Photograph courtesy of the Alliance Theatre

There’s a school of thought that says if you’re an actor recreating a role made famous by a Hollywood star, don’t study it. That way, you won’t be tempted to imitate. But Neal Ghant—the Atlanta actor leading the cast of the Alliance Theatre’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest this month—had no qualms about watching Jack Nicholson’s gonzo, Oscar-winning portrayal of mental-ward patient Randle P. McMurphy.

“I feel like [Nicholson’s] style of acting was something I couldn’t even try to perpetuate,” says Ghant, 37, a quicksilver artist who can muster visceral edge and aching tenderness, often in the same breath. It’s a testament to his stage intensity, perhaps, that both his Suzi Bass award nominations have been for performances in plays by the bristling David Mamet: Race, at True Colors Theatre last year, and Glengarry Glen Ross, at the Alliance in 2007. Now he’s eager to reunite with familiar colleagues in Cuckoo’s nearly all-Atlanta cast, including Tess Malis Kincaid (Nurse Ratched); former Georgia Shakespeare head Richard Garner (Scanlon) and Andrew Benator (Dale Harding). Over a chicken biscuit at Home Grown, Ghant shared his thoughts on the upcoming production:

This is arguably your biggest part to date. What’s your take on Randle?
He’s kind of lost. Spent some time in jail. Crook. Shark. Probably deals with running numbers. A gambler. But smart! And honest, caring. The playwright goes to great lengths to try to describe his rough edges, so I guess the tenderness that he shows throughout is that juxtaposition. That’s the fun stuff for me!

How is Dale Wasserman’s 1963 Broadway script, which the Alliance is staging, different from the Milos Forman film, which swept the 1976 Oscars?
The film has that 1970s bustin’ loose kind of vibe. “We are going to be ‘anti’ this and that.” At the end, the play feels like there is far more opportunity for joy and uplift, even amidst the real dark sadness in the piece.

The story is so funny and also so bleak. How will you balance that?
I’m going to keep it as light as I can, as long as I can. I think those [tragic] moments land better when the audience has truly had a blast getting there.

On the calendar: A mostly local cast brings Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation to the Alliance from September 2 through 20.

This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue under the headline “Breaking Out.”