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Feeling Ratched Linda Hamilton, no shrinking violet, finds a challenge in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Linda Hamilton is trying to engineer a wardrobe malfunction.

"We're having a little struggle with a scene at the end where the costume is ripped from my body," confesses Hamilton, who has played her share of tough cookies in the Terminator films and in the TV series Beauty and the Beast and who is in rehearsals to play the bitterest pill of all: Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. "The first time Jonathan [Epstein, who plays McMurphy] tried to rip off the uniform, he wrenched his wrist. Then he had a second attempt and cut his finger on the snaps. We'll have another go at it today and hope we can work it out. It's funny how such a little thing becomes a very large thing."

In a way, though, it's fitting that a mere brush with Nurse Ratched's clothing causes injury. As Hamilton sees this iconic character--who lords it over an unruly mental health ward full of male patients (and who was memorably portrayed in the film by Louise Fletcher, in an Oscar-winning turn)--Ratched has walled herself entirely off from human connection, and heaven help anyone who tries to transgress her boundaries.

"Everything we're taught as actors is about relationship, and finding connection with other actors in the scene," says Hamilton, who studied with Lee Strasberg before heading to Los Angeles to work in TV and film. "Nurse Ratched is not looking for connection. It's an interesting place to go with a character; she's in her own very isolated place in this play. She's not even looking to her aides and nurses to back me up. She is the complete captain of her ship, and she feels like relating to others would be a sign of weakness."

Hamilton says that this isolation goes against the grain of her own preferred approach to acting--which, after going through her share of youthful offscreen drama, has become markedly easygoing and friendly.

"I'm now the kind of actor who can play a woman who's dying onscreen and be laughing with the crew until they say 'Roll camera,' " Hamilton says. "I need to be that way, to separate acting from life."

She does admit to some post-shoot depression after the first Terminator film came to an end, but she's seen a lot worse in her career. "I knew someone who went hysterically blind on a film shoot; the work she was doing was that intense. She had to be talked down over a period of hours."

These days, the worst it gets, Hamilton reports of Cuckoo's Nest rehearsals, is that she sometimes feels "a little edgy when I get home, because I've been working on frustration all day. I usually play very self-actualized women, but this woman's got her armor on; she's really out her own. I wondered when I got here: Is this going to be a frustrating summer?"

Her attempt to create Ratched's isolation might be working too well, she says.

"I'm very comfortable with the men in the cast, but I think they're a little less comfortable with me--they tend to step back when I walk through the door," Hamilton says.

Hamilton has been on record as having gone through periods of depression and has made wellness initiatives for the mentally ill one of her pet causes. She points out that the public perception of mental health, and of efforts to treat it, have changed since Ken Kesey wrote his popular book in 1962, which Dale Wassermann adapted into a play in 1974.

"We've come a long way since the 1960s," Hamilton says. "It's something I know a little bit about, though fortunately I never had to go into lockdown." Electroshock treatments and prefrontal lobotomies have given way to antidepressant drugs. But, Hamilton says, the director of the Berkshires production, Eric Hill, sees the hospital metaphorically.

"He would say the play is about America and our need to dominate, even if it means taking away liberties," Hamilton says. In that scheme, she says, Ratched "represents America, the one who thinks she's doing what's best for the common good. I'm not playing a bad woman; she has the best intentions. She runs a tight ship and tolerates no breakdown of discipline, but is that really for the greater good?"

That's certainly one to way read this anti-establishment fable. But, says Hamilton, "The play only reflects so much; it's the actors within the play who lend it credibility and truth. These are characters in a lot of pain, and on one level, the play reflects their struggle to live joyfully with their mental illness."

A native of Maryland, Hamilton started acting in earnest as an ingénue with Chestertown Kent Players. Training in New York and on-screen work in Hollywood followed. But in recent years she's made a concerted effort to return to her stage roots.

"A stage actor is what I intended to be, and it's really lovely to return to that," Hamilton says. "I made a big 90-degree turn, and all of a sudden I was an action-adventure star. That was great, but my goal is to be great stage actress for the second half of my career."

At the Berkshires last year she played Maxine in Night of the Iguana, and she looks forward to more Tennessee Williams roles. Other plays she'd love to tackle include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Frankie and Johnny.

"I always meant to be a character actress--I never saw myself as a leading lady," Hamilton says. "My first memory of loving being onstage was when I did children's theatre and I played the badger in Wind in the Willows. I jumped out of a pile of leaves and scared the other children to death.

"Now, looking back, I see it--no wonder they cast me as Sarah Conner [in Terminator]. I wouldn't have seen myself going there, but now I look back and see there's no place else I could have gone."

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest opens at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., on July 13. More information here.