The Mark Taper Forum certainly loves its epics. Theatergoers will, of course, recall “Angels in America” and “The Kentucky Cycle” (both Pulitzer Prize winners), but let’s not forget the less successful “Floating Islands,” a saga of the Cuban-American experience. Now comes “The Cider House Rules,” another multi-act two-parter that can be seen over a couple of evenings or during one marathon day. Adapted by Peter Parnell from John Irving’s celebrated 1985 best-seller of the same name, this comic drama proves a considerable achievement. A slice of American pie set in Maine and encompassing the better part of the present century, the play compellingly examines a host of societal concerns within a richly complex yet disarmingly elegant framework. Credit for the success must be split, but the lion’s share belongs to Tom Hulce and Jane Jones, who not only directed but conceived this production, which had its premiere at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
The divisive issue of abortion is the thread that runs through the play, directly or indirectly affecting all the action. And it proves a resilient chord, one that remains unbroken despite the best efforts of some of the 60 characters who populate this sprawling drama. There is, obviously, a blatant political point at the heart of “Cider House,” and some people will be put off by its insistent message. But those caught up in the human saga of the work will probably forgive such excesses. They certainly should.
Part One focuses largely on Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Winters), a Harvard-educated obstetrician who has been converted to the virtues of abortion via rude awakenings. Installed by the St. Cloud’s hospital and orphanage to bring children into the world and see to their care until proper homes can be found, Dr. Larch also finds his remote domain an ideal spot in which to perform what he calls “God’s work,” i.e. abortions. As is said of the good doctor’s efforts, sometimes he delivers children, and sometimes he delivers mothers.
Assisted by two capable and doting nurses (Jane Carr and Brenda Wehle), Dr. Larch looks after his charges — those he hasn’t terminated — with paternal affection. He calls them princes of Maine, kings of New England, and he reads Dickens to them, forming an especially strong connection with one, Homer Wells (Josh Hamilton), an unfortunate child whose luck with adoptive parents has been nil (two sets abuse him, a third dies in a freakish, Irving-esque accident).
While at St. Cloud’s, Homer also forms a less savory association, with Melony (Jillian Armenante), an exceptionally strong and angry tomboy with all the charm of Attila the Hun. It is Melony who introduces Homer to sex, the missing link in a trinity also comprising childbirth and its doppelganger, abortion.
But the relationship between Homer and Dr. Larch is the crucible in which “Cider House” wages its most searing battles. And it is their love for each other that proves the most enduring bond in this play. At the drama’s conclusion, Homer gives Dr. Larch an incalculably valuable gift, a sacrifice really. But before reconciliation comes conflict, for Homer eventually rejects many of the lessons Dr. Larch imparts to him, especially those concerning terminating pregnancies.
If Part One of “Cider House” charts Dr. Larch’s journey, then Part Two is Homer’s odyssey. Convinced that Homer needs to see at least some of the world, Dr. Larch encourages his surrogate son to spend time with a young couple, Wally and Candy (Patrick Wilson and Myra Platt). A fast friendship evolves, and Homer becomes smitten with Candy. When Wally goes off to war, the inevitable occurs, and a son, Angel (Shane West), is born to Homer and Candy. The descent into — and undoing of — that mess occupy the bulk of the play’s second part.
But what really makes “Cider House” so special isn’t the engrossing soap opera. Rather, it’s Hulce and Jones’ production, a remarkable amalgam of craft and simplicity. Grand gestures and overwhelming effects are entirely eschewed. Instead, subtle and often moving directorial touches sustain our interest in this vast canvas, itself the product of Parnell’s smart synthesis of a 550-page novel.
John Arnone’s set, which curiously bears a slight resemblance to the set in “Ragtime,” is plainness itself, wooden slats surrounding a two-tier wrought-iron frame. Sound effects, so much a part of the action and enjoyment here, are largely produced by the actors, and all the more attractive for the imperfections. Snow, for instance, is sprinkled by the handful by cast members in full view. And the use of on-stage musicians to play folk tunes and Schubert lieder lends welcome verisimilitude, to say nothing of pleasure.
But perhaps more than anything, it’s the choreographic aspects of the staging that impress most. Often, “Cider House” seems as much a ballet as a drama, so beautiful and symbolic are the movements on stage.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with three outstanding performances. Given Dr. Larch’s zeal regarding abortion, it would be easy for Winters to play the character didactically, as something of a mouthpiece for Irving’s views. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Winters crafts a nuanced portrait, full of contradictions and lovable quirks. Hamilton’s Homer is no less striking. Hopelessly endearing, Hamilton takes his character from small boy to middle-aged man without strain. It is, amazingly, an entirely unselfconscious performance. Armenante’s strength is precisely the opposite: The terrible Melony is an outsize character, and the actress plays her that way. But Armenante also knows subtlety, and she turns a role that might have been little more than comic relief into one of the most sympathetic in the play.
For seeing such potential in Irving’s polemical novel, Hulce and Jones deserve the highest praise. They saw wondrous dramatic possibilities in the expansive book and took a chance. Now, it’s clear that their great leap has been our gain.