[Sidebar] May 10 - 17, 2001
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Orphan ante

Trinity goes back to the Cider House

by Carolyn Clay

THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, PART 2. Adapted by Peter Parnell from the novel by John Irving. Directed by Oskar Eustis. Musical direction by Amanda Dehnert. Set design by Eugene Lee. Costumes by William Lane. Lighting by D.M. Wood. Choreography by Kelli Wicke Davis. Sound by Peter Sasha Hurowitz. With Tanya Anderson, Angela Brazil, Mark Anthony Brown, J. Bernard Calloway, William Damkoehler, Nehassaiu deGannes, Janice Duclos, Mauro Hantman, Phyllis Kay, Keskhemnu, Brian McEleney, Brian Monahan, Barbara Orson, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Anne Scurria, Stephen Thorne, Colin Nagle, and musicians Chris Turner, Kevin Fallon, Claire Lewis, and Rachel Maloney. At Trinity Repertory Company, in repertory through June 17.

[The Cider House Rules] It's probably a toss-up whether experiencing John Irving's 1985 The Cider House Rules in Peter Parnell's six-hour stage adaptation or as a book on tape would take longer. But if the rambling two-part stage version is longer than it needs to be, it is chock with the novel's ironic, idiosyncratic detail. There is also a fair amount of Dickensian sentiment in Irving's Maine-set saga of love, war, and reproductive rights in the first half of the 20th century -- sentiment that Trinity Rep artistic director Oskar Eustis buys into exuberantly, particularly in Part 2. And that makes the gritty, vigorous way in which his production grapples with the difficult issue of abortion, and the brutal results of its legal unavailability, particularly welcome.

Part 1 hews tightly to Irving's narrative, including the early sexual and obstetrical adventures that fashioned Dr. Wilbur Larch into an obsessed, celibate, ether-sniffing orphan tender and abortionist in a town that lumberjacks forgot. And it tells the story of career orphan Homer Wells, whose "home" becomes the Depression-era orphanage where surrogate father Larch trains him to be his assistant and where fellow inmate Melony, an angry and precocious mountain of a girl, rings his sexual alarm clock. It ends with Homer setting out on what is meant to be a brief adventure with apple-orchard heir Wally Worthington and his pretty girlfriend, Candy, who have come to St. Cloud's for an abortion. Part 2 opens at the orchard at Heart's Haven, on the Maine coast, where a hoedown to celebrate the harvest's first cider pressing is in progress. Finally we will learn about those titular rules.

Of course, The Cider House Rules is really about people who break the rules yet try to do right, adhering to a humane if somewhat spandex personal code. It also asserts that some rules are not flexible. But the "cider house rules" are the ones tacked up on the wall of the shack that houses the African-American migrant workers who arrive each year to pick the apples. They mostly have to do with not getting so drunk that you fall off the roof -- as, in a splendid bit in the Trinity production, a very loose-limbed J. Bernard Calloway does, landing with a loud crash that alarmed many in the opening-night audience. Parnell leans a little heavily on the "rules" theme, as he does on the one borrowed from David Copperfield having to do with whether Homer Wells will become the hero of his own life. But the adapter and his Trinity collaborators hit on the jumble, scope, tenderness, and moral spine of the story

I have to admit that there are elements of The Cider House Rules that got on my nerves as the epic progressed, among them the Story Theatre narration and the fiddle-dominated score, which sometimes thickens the sentimental threads of the story. And I preferred the astringency of St. Cloud's, with its irritable doctor saint and wackily devoted nurses, to the folksiness of apple-and-lobstering center Heart's Haven. So I found it gratifying when Brian McEleney, Anne Scurria, and Barbara Orson, chipper members of the apple-farm ensemble, doffed their overalls to return as Larch and Nurses Angela and Edna -- especially when they followed Homer's sweet sexual initiation with a full frontal assault on the audience, shaking strings of prophylactics while thundering about safe sex.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the adaptation emphasizes the love quartet of Homer, Candy, paralyzed war hero Wally, and Homer and Candy's love child, ebullient innocent (and Irving figure) Angel Wells. Sketchier is the story of the tight African-American migrant community and its secrets (though there are some edgy yet subtle performances in these roles). And the production is rife with bold, simple staging effects, among them World War II pilot Wally's being shot down over Burma. He takes off from a high ladder, only to go limp in his body harness and be slowly lowered to the accompaniment of sepulchral strings.

It goes without saying that the versatile Trinity ensemble takes to this high-energy, multi-character material like orphans to Annie. But at the core of the rambling story are fine performances in the major roles. Janice Duclos, though something of a punishing Hulk Hogan as Melony, captures both the character's heartbreak and her belligerence. Stephen Thorne, as the tentative Homer, manages to seem slack and passionate at once. And McEleney, whether firing off pro-abortion screeds to President Roosevelt or formally laying himself out for a peaceably rattling death, remains a formidable Larch. Destiny and responsibility are one and the same in The Cider House Rules, and when McEleney's perceptibly ancient, still fiery Larch is rattling the double sword, you pay attention.

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