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|A CurtainUp Review
The Cider House Rules,Part I Here in St. Cloud's
ou may disapprove, but you may not be ignorant or look away
-- Dr. Wilbur Larch, when Homer Welch, his surrogate son and assistant, balks at his philosophy of delivering or aborting unwanted babies depending on the mother's choice. The issues surrounding abortion and adoption are the big themes of John Irving's 1985 best-seller Cider House Rules. The effect of Wells' move from passive follower to young man with a mind of his own (at least about abortion), is the emotional center of Peter Parnell's stage adaptation of the novel.
John Irving, one of our most unique modern storytellers, has given us a gallery of one-of-a-kind characters, including Wilbur Larch and Homer Welch the heroes of his even-handed and entertaining novel about issues of abortion and adoption. I was not surprised at the positive feedback about the Los Angeles production of Parnell's adaptation. What a story! What a feast of meaty acting parts! What a grand opportunity for innovative staging. Devoting a day to the six-hour, two-part epic (an earlier Seattle version ran eight hours!) promised enough rewards to make the investment of time worthwhile.
The New York production does indeed live up to praises garnered on the West Coast. Parnell has done wonders to synthesize the epic-scaled novel. As conceived and directed by Tom Hulce and Jane Jones, Irving's distinctive vision and style have vibrantly leaped from page to stage as a relevant humor-filled social drama. Two of the key actors from the original cast have accompanied the play to Off-Broadway: Josh Hamilton brings just the right mix of charm and naivete to Homer, the innocent hero abroad in a Dickensian world of orphans; Jillian Armenante as the outrageous love and sex-starved orphan Melony manages to let a dash of vulnerability peek through her amazing and aggressive physicality. The new on board actors acquit themselves faultlessly. They are unfazed by their intricate multiple roles which involve gender crossing and at times even include objects and sounds. Colm Meaney who won many fans in the Irish film, The Commitments, is most persuasive as Dr. Wilbur Larch.
Unfortunately New York theater goers are being given only half of a good thing -- The Ciderhouse Rules, Part One, but not Part Two. While Part Two may yet materialize its current absence leaves one with a sense of incompleteness. The cider house and its rules remain meaningless title words. One of the characters, Fuzzy Stone (Todd Weeks) is allowed to wheeze himself into oblivion without any hint of his eventual "rebirth." It's one thing to skip the second act of a really bad play or to leave a poor book unfinished. But this is one of the most stylistically original and engrossing new plays of the season. Unlike some stories where what happens next can be left to the reader's or viewer' imagination, the rest of this saga depends on Irving's inventive viewpoint and the Parnell-Hulce-Jones matchingly innovative approach to translating it for the theater.
Whether Part Two arrives at the Atlantic to play in tandem with Part One, next season or never, this Here At St. Clouds installment makes a solid case for half a loaf being better than none. It's a very nourishing half loaf which can stand on its own as an uncommonly touching and frequently funny father and son story.
The three acts span sixty years, from 1880 to 1940. Except for a few flashbacks to clue us in on Dr. Larch's past, most of the play's events take place after 1920 at St Cloud's, an obstetrical-abortion clinic and orphanage in rural Maine. The flashbacks show us Wilbur's early doctoring in the slums of Boston where he learned about the suffering resulting from pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. We also take part in his one and only sexual experience with a whore (Leslie Hendrix) and watch him become an ether addict to relieve the pain of the venereal disease he contracted. These are the defining events leading to his becoming a single-minded obstetrician-abortionist and protector of orphans.
The main events at St. Cloud's begin with Homer's literally bursting into life from the womb of an unknown woman. Dr. Larch believes St. Cloud's should be just a way station towards adoption, and most of the orphans are as eager to leave as he is to see them go. But Homer turns out to be St. Cloud's only "true orphan." After several unsuccessful ventures into "real" homes he returns for good. Larch becomes a father of sorts -- and his two devoted nurses Edna and Angela (portrayed with great humor and warmth by Marceline Hugot and Peggy Roeder) counterparts of doting aunts. Homer is given more and more responsibilities. From taking over Dr. Larch's bed time reading sessions of Great Expectations and David Copperfield to the resident orphans ("what else do you read to orphans?"), he gradually learns enough medicine to assist at the births and abortions. Eventually what Larch calls a fetus materializes as a baby to Homer and this difference in opinion drives a wedge into the father-son-mentor-acolyte relationship.
Homer and Larch and the countless quirky characters are all larger than life, yet they work their distinctly oddball charms to reel in your sympathy and attention. The use of the third person voice as each actor become the narrator of his own actions could, with less skillful direction and acting, become tiresome and too distancing. Except for some overdone scenes with gender mixed adults being rumbuctuous child orphans, the stage concept is a fine fit with Irving's novel.
In an evening marked by its ensemble excellence, there is one standout scene when Melony, with a bumbling Homer in tow, races up and down and across the stage like a human steamroller in overdrive . Jill Armenante is an actress who's not afraid to make herself as unattractive as possible -- and then some. I, for one, can't wait to see more of her outrageous doings if and when Part Two comes out way. In the meantime, you could do a lot worse than reading the book to find out about the rules of the title and what happens at the apple farm that marks the next stage of Homer's Candide-like journey through his life.