“There’s a lot you’ve missed,” exclaims a new friend to protagonist Homer Wells near the conclusion of part one of “The Cider House Rules,” and the audience, brought up short by the play’s ending even as Homer takes off for a new beginning, can surely relate to the feeling. The Atlantic Theater Co.’s fiscally determined decision to produce only the opening half of this expansive stage adaptation of John Irving’s novel is certainly understandable. (Hopes are that part two, previously staged along with the first in both Seattle and Los Angeles, will follow this summer if critical and B.O. reception to part one is strong.) But it’s also frustrating — we barely get to the apples by the end of part one’s three-plus hours, let alone the cider.
While the Atlantic’s production has much to recommend it, it’s hard to form a complete impression of a work that draws to a close just when it is finally beginning to deepen. Peter Parnell’s adaptation of the book, as directed by Tom Hulce and Jane Jones, is full of cheeky, charmingly unsophisticated theatrical vigor, and Irving’s cockeyed characters are indubitably stageworthy, but the first installment of “The Cider House Rules” never shakes the feeling of being a novel acted out. Despite plenty of energetic performances, its characters remain steadfastly two-dimensional, flattened by continually being presented to us through the distancing prism of the novelist’s narrative voice.
The story opens at the St. Cloud’s orphanage in Maine, presided over by the businesslike Dr. Wilbur Larch (Colm Meaney). The time is the early 20th century, when adoption was still the only approved method of dealing with unwanted pregnancies. But with the aid of loyal nurses Edna (played with moist, sentimental glee by Marceline Hugot) and Angela (a wry, dry Peggy Roeder), Dr. Larch also secretly performs abortions.
In flashbacks, we learn the history of his potentially criminal compassion: Dr. Larch’s sexual initiation came at the hands of a prostitute whose daughter later begged him for an abortion. Larch, just out of medical school, refused, and the woman died from a botched procedure obtained in more desperate quarters.
The young doctor, meanwhile, gave up sex altogether after contracting a venereal disease from his encounter with the pregnant girl’s mother. Sex and guilt and medicine and morality are thus inextricably mixed together in Dr. Larch’s buttoned-down heart, and he escapes the pain of his past with the aid of the same ether he uses to anesthetize his patients.
Among the orphans of St. Cloud’s is Homer Wells (Josh Hamilton), a hapless child whose three adoptions have failed to take root. As the young boy grows up, he becomes a protege and disciple of Dr. Larch, graduating at a strangely early age from reading Dickens to the orphans before bedtime to assisting in the doctor’s medical procedures.
Feistily pushing her way from the periphery of the tale to its center whenever she can is another orphan, Melony, played with astonishing, delightful physicality by a buzzbomb of an actress named Jillian Armenante, even if her brash comic style is more post-“Seinfeld” than pre-war. Melony, also luckless in getting adopted, befriends Homer and urges him to question Dr. Larch’s rules (she wants to find her real parents) — and by extension the morality of his actions.
In the early going, the production often seems to be a little besotted with its own cleverness — adult actors playing children in ill-fitting kids’ clothes, providing the sounds of squealing infants and minimalist effects such as snowfall and whistling winds. The show’s broad comic tone and swirling pace, with the actors rushing on and off the stage and up and down the Atlantic’s aisles, are pushed to the point of aggressive cuteness.
But it gradually settles down, and the more subtle attractions of the tale take over. Irving is a novelist in the grand 19th-century manner whose abundant gift for storytelling is mixed with an idiosyncratic comic voice, and the pleasures of his style are carefully preserved here. Even the most peripheral characters are etched with neat, pictorial strokes, such as the nasty stationmaster who “never lost his fear of the mail, of what might be coming his way.” Observing the way the author weaves his themes and comic motifs together is a delight in itself.
For all its physical exuberance, however, directors Hulce and Jones’ staging cannot erase the wordiness of Parnell’s text, which is perhaps loyal to Irving’s novel to a fault. The characters narrate the tale as much as they enact it, often following a line of dialogue by revealing the character’s thoughts or giving a description of an action. Certainly this is one way of replicating the novelist’s privileged omniscience and allowing for a wealth of incident not easy to stage — but it’s also inherently undramatic, and, after three hours, a little deflating. The immediacy that is so central to the appeal of theater is dissipated when we are constantly made aware that we’re watching events not as they happen but as they happened.
Hamilton is a bright-eyed, comically blank presence as young Homer; it’s probably not the fault of the actor but the text that Homer’s sudden revulsion at the idea of abortion seemsdictated rather than felt. Meaney gives a fine, subdued performance as the gruff Dr. Larch, who can dissect a heart in an autopsy with the meticulous attention he cannot bring to examining his own.
As the first part of Irving’s tale comes to its conclusion, Homer and Dr. Larch are increasingly at odds, and there’s the tantalizing feeling that the rift between them may in part two provide the springboard for a more searching emotional journey than part one has supplied. But one is nevertheless left with the nagging thought that the staging, potent and fluid as it is, does not dramatically enrich the material — the novel has been transcribed for the theater rather than transformed.