A modern epic
Trinity Rep's ambitious Cider House Rules
by Bill Rodriguez
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
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
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
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