[Sidebar] April 12 - 19, 2001
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A modern epic

Trinity Rep's ambitious Cider House Rules

by Bill Rodriguez

Oskar Eustis

When Oskar Eustis came here in the fall of 1994 to take charge as the new artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company, one of the first things he did was read a certain thick playscript and "fell in love with it." Peter Parnell's epic adaptation of the sprawling John Irving novel The Cider House Rules ended up being whipped into final shape at Seattle Repertory Theatre, but early work was also done here. Trinity actors helped flesh out the project at a Bread Loaf Summer Workshop in Vermont, and Eustis has kept conversation about the play going with the playwright, especially during its tinkering over the last year, when Parnell has also been busy writing for The West Wing.

But the original co-directors -- Jane Jones and Tom Hulce, of Amadeus fame --wanted to bring two or three actors from Seattle, so back in the mid-'90s further development in Providence wasn't in the cards. Part One premiered in Seattle 1996, Part Two a year later there and both parts in Los Angeles. Together they originally were a bustling, event-packed eight hours-plus. (Back-to-back marathon performances of the two plays will be staged at Trinity on May 5, 6, and 19, and June 2 and 16.)

The story is that of orphanage director and doctor Wilbur Larch (Brian McEleney), who with doubly chilling irony is also an abortionist in the 1950s and father-figure to one of his wards, Homer Wells (Stephan Thome). Larch passes on to Wells his own skills as a doctor -- the illegal ones, too -- and Part One ends with the young man venturing off into the world to find himself, and not incidentally find a few wild oats to sow.

Over the course of the play's evolution, two hours have been cut from the two sections, yet all told it's still a big, wandering tale that required 22 actors in the Mark Taper Forum production. Rather than cut down the on-stage mob, Eustis has added 27 children to play the orphans, which were played by adults in other versions. Trinity's resident set designer Eugene Lee, who did the first Seattle production, is on board, as is Amanda Dehnert as musical director.

Before Eustis came to Trinity he had gained quite a reputation as a dramaturge, one of those specialists in dramatic structure and content whose job it is to help extract the essence of a play. Most notably he did so in helping Tony Kushner bring the renowned Angels In America through gestation to birth. Eustis has a lot invested in The Cider House Rules, flying to Seattle three times to follow its adaptation. Before a recent rehearsal, he sat in his Washington Street office -- a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his left hand threatened by his gesticulating right hand -- and spoke about the play.

Q: What initially attracted you to the project?

A: Three things, initially. First, it struck me then as it does now as a fantastic company piece, a great ensemble piece.

Q: Twenty-two in the cast originally, pared down to 19 for New York. And you're adding scads of kids as well.

A: Yeah, we get a lot of people on stage there. We hope there's room for all of them. So the ensemble was a huge part of it. The storytelling was a big part of it. The novel was self-consciously Dickensian -- obviously he's modeling it on Dickens, with constant references throughout. But it's also Dickensian in its overt theatricality. The reason [his novels] translate so well to the stage is that Dickens was such a man of the theater himself and understood the theater. These sorts of broad-stroke characters and deep conflicts and scenes of high emotionality that characterize Dickens play beautifully on stage.

Finally, the central issue, no matter what anybody says -- including our marketing department -- this is a play about abortion. This is about abortion; there's no way around it. Particularly the moral and practical debate about abortion is the lodestone for the piece. And I have never seen a piece of art -- certainly not a piece of art performed -- that in a richer or more human way forces that issue to the surface and forces you to think and talk and feel about it the way this does.

Q: Are there themes -- that one or others -- you are bringing out that weren't underscored in previous productions?

A: What I will say is that there is a theme that is sounded over and over again in the play, as it is in the book, which is the theme of not looking away. And the fundamental principal that Wilbur Larch has -- and he enunciates in this great sort of climactic scene that he has with Homer in the first evening -- where he says: You are not permitted to be ignorant. You are not permitted to look away, to not know. He talks about it in reference to abortion, but for me it is a theme that resonates throughout all of the issues of the play.

That's led to a series of choices which I think are quite a bit different from what has been done in other productions of this. One of the first decisions was to have children. This is a play about kids. It was Irving's brilliant insight to vivify this whole issue by making an abortionist the head of an orphanage. It's brilliant! It's fantastic, because what it means is that you get this constant double vision all the time. That you have to see abortion in the context of the lives of children. You cannot separate and try and see these as two different issues.

Q: This must be very interesting for you as a dramaturge as well, the decisions that you've made about clarifying and maintaining a through line.

A: The biggest challenge that I think the play has had is how do we cover this span of time from the 1880s to the 1950s, cover all of this territory in terms of story line and plot and events, and keep the fundamental dramatic arc clear. Where this has been hardest is in the second evening.

In a way, the through line in the first evening is quite simple: Homer Wells grows up and leaves the orphanage. The second evening covers all of Homer's life [until] his return to the orphanage. The amount of time we have to cover is huge. The amount of plot development is huge, and the events are huge. What I think was happening -- and again it's not like they weren't struggling with this before -- but what I don't think was solved adequately before was that all of that plot seemed to take over in the second evening, and you were dealing with event, event, event, event, event, and you were losing sight of what's the moral journey here. Because that's the heart of the journey; it's the moral education of Homer Wells, how Homer Wells finally finds the place on earth where he can be of use, where he belongs.

That's something that's informed all of my dialogue with Peter, it's informed the work up in the room: How do we cover all of this plot without losing sight of the fact that the plot's about something? Not just something but the same thing, focused and unified through this issue of how does Homer Wells become an ethical man? Which in the words of Wilbur Larch is, "How can Homer Wells be of use"?

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