Lesbian brings life experiences to The Cider House Rules
For Samantha Rosentrater, playing “the perfect role” is more than just a theater world cliche.
As the actor playing Melony in The Cider House Rules, Parts 1 and 2 at the Hilberry Theatre through May 14, Rosentrater brings a lifetime of experiences to a character whom she describes as being vulnerable, violent and having a heart of gold.
The actor and character share much in common, starting with a childhood filled with remarkable similarities. John Irving’s Melony is a resident of the St. Cloud orphanage where she meets and connects with Homer, one of her only friends. Rosentrater was raised in a series of foster homes in Alabama as “property of the state.” Also, both Melony and Rosentrater are openly lesbian.
“A good actor is a good actor,” Rosentrater said, pointing out that while it isn’t necessary to share life experiences with a character being portrayed, it doesn’t hurt either. “I was the one cast in this role. I have things that are unique to me. I know what it is like to fall in love with a woman for the first time. There is a moment when Lorna flirts with (Melony) for the first time. She recognizes that this person is interested in her, and they make the decision to be in a relationship together. I can recall all of that and I know what that is like.”
Peter Parnell adapted the two plays from John Irving’s novel of the same name. Combined, the two plays are six hours long and traverse 40 years. Homer and Melony grow up at the St. Cloud orphanage where Dr. Larch presides and provides one of the few places where women can get safe abortions. Homer eventually leaves in large part because of his beliefs about abortions and ends up working in apple orchards with migrant workers. Melony spends 25 years trying to find him as he had promised her he would never leave her.
For Rosentrater, three of the play’s major themes resonate with her and, she says, speak to any member of any oppressed group. The first is a line by Dr. Larch which he delivers to Homer when Homer says he won’t perform abortions. He says, “You may disapprove, but you may not be ignorant or look away.”
“Larch is speaking of abortion, but it is universal to any oppressed group of people,” Rosentrater said. “We’re not here to try and change your mind about whether you like gay people or whether you think we should get married or what rights we should have. We can’t change your mind about it, but you can’t ignore us. You can disapprove all you want, but you can’t ignore us any longer or just look away.”
The other themes are that of “waiting and seeing” and the rules referenced in the title – ludicrous rules that try to dictate to others how they should live their lives.
“The way you choose to live your life comes through the experiences that you’ve had and the things that have happened to you,” said Rosentrater. “It isn’t anyone else’s dogma or philosophy that makes you live your life a certain way. Melony comes to fall in love with a woman and …came to these points in her life being happy with another woman in the ’30s and the ’40s. She came to this on her own by those experiences she had.”
The role of Melony is filled with both physical and emotional challenges, according to Rosentrater, and ones that vary in the two different plays.
“It’s been quite a feat to play,” Rosentrater said. “She gets so mad that she tears an empty building down with her bare hands. She has a volcanic rage, but like any good, well-written character, she is beautifully vulnerable and insecure. At the heart of it, she is a beautiful person.”
As the character matures, she develops a filter between her rage and its expression. While she lacks the book smarts of other characters in the play, Rosentrater portrays her as world smart, a person who sees everything and knows everything.
“She isn’t as dumb as she looks, especially at the end of the play where she can instantly recognize Homer’s situations,” Rosentrater said. “She’s like an oracle. She sees all, knows all and isn’t afraid to say it.”
It’s also a role that has often left Rosentrater bruised and covered in Epson salts as she works her way through fights and extreme physicality. Despite that, it’s a part that she describes as being rewarding and compelling in a play that she is grateful to be able to do.
“It is the beauty of the Hilberry: We have the resources to do something like this,” Rosentrater said.
The Cider House Rules, Parts I & II
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., $25-$30. 313-577-2972.
For showtimes, visit http://www.hilberry.com