Director of the Cuckoos Nest bringing the drama back home

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A quarter-century after Lee Sankowich helped lift the curtain on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in theaters from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, he is bringing the powerful drama about a mental institution to a Marin stage.

It was in 1970 that Sankowich directed the Dale Wasserman play based on Ken Kesey's novel at San Francisco's Little Fox Theatre — and the show ran for a record-breaking five years.

He eventually brought "Cuckoo's Nest" to New York, where such actors as Danny DeVito, William Devane and Olympia Dukakis starred in the production. The Academy Award-winning film version of the play, with Jack Nicholson as rogue inmate Randall P. McMurphy, soon followed.

But as Sankowich revives "Cuckoo's Nest" for a limited five-week run by the Marin Theatre Company, he says the Hebrew version he directed with Tel Aviv's Bimot Productions in 1972 is among his favorites.

"Of all the productions I've done, it was the most memorable," he says.

Among scenes from Israel that stay with him: the day the Israeli troupe performed the play at an Israeli mental hospital.

"It was at the end of the day and the beginning of the night shift, and the day nurse said to us, `The night nurse is Nurse Ratched.' Then the night nurse said to us, `The day nurse is Nurse Ratched.'"

One member of the mental institution audience Sankowich recalls was the patient who had been found in the middle of the Sinai Desert, his wrists slashed. He believed the Soviets were replacing all Israelis with clones.

Sankowich tasted the real-life insanity of Middle East politics as well. As his Israeli troupe rehearsed, terrorists seized a passenger-filled jetliner at what was then Lod Airport. News filtered back to the actors as Israeli soldiers stormed the plane dressed as mechanics in a dramatic, and bloody, rescue.

"Cuckoo's Nest" itself explores the meaning of sanity and personal freedom, and Sankowich recalls that the Israeli actors "had no problem diving right into it."

The ensemble drama tells about survival in a hostile world, a mental institution tyrannized by the head nurse and an obedient, cruel staff. While the theme may not be overtly Jewish, Sankowich feels it offers themes that resonate with Jews.

"Nurse Ratched was right," Sankowich says. "After all, McMurphy does have a criminal record and he acts up. The play shows that any villain can support his position, can give reasons justifying his orders. And the people the villain chooses to carry out his orders are people he chooses because they have their own hatreds to exercise."

And "even though the hero McMurphy loses the battle, he wins the war," Sankowich adds. For while McMurphy becomes a victim, he shows others how to be free.

"If there's a Jewish theme in the play, it's that. We can read into it that it reaffirms the importance of who we are as Jewish people, how important it is in dealing with assimilation. Heritage has to be preserved.

"By presenting modern plays our values can be examined — how much we've strayed, how much we've kept of our values."

Sankowich has kept his Jewish identity intact. He was raised in a Conservative Jewish San Francisco household, had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Sholom. After graduating from Lowell High School, he attended San Francisco State University and University of Southern California, led companies in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, where he also taught theater at Carnegie Mellon University.

He has raised two daughters (now in their teens and 20s) as Jews, and says he would "love" to show them Israel. "Now would be the time," he says.

In 1990 he returned to the Bay Area, where he joined the Marin Theatre Company. He mounts this production of "Cuckoo's Nest" with mixed feelings. "At first, I thought, `Oh, no, I can't face it again,'" he says. "But so much has happened, I've learned so much since those days" 25 years ago "that I find there is a lot more going on in that play than I was aware of then."