BY JOHN MONAGHAN
DETROIT FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER
The original article may be found here.
Call it crazy. Call it inspired. But every decade or so, the Hilberry Theatre graduate program at Wayne State University embarks on a grand, multipart production that challenges the mettle of its ensemble and the collective posterior of its audience.
The Kentucky Cycle did it last in 2004. Before that it was The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickelby in 1988. Tonight and Saturday, the Hilberry launches parts one and two of The Cider House Rules, a stage version of the John Irving novel. It runs as part of the theater’s repertory program through mid-May.
“It’s an amazing piece of staging,” says Blair Anderson, who is codirecting the play with Lavinia Moyer Hart. “We cover three decades, starting in the 1920s, but then flash back into the 1880s. We have 180 to 190 scenes, some lasting just five or six lines, others 5 or 10 minutes.”
The show follows Homer Wells (Andrew Papa), a boy raised in the St. Cloud’s orphanage by the gruff but compassionate Dr. Wilbur Larch (Christopher Ellis). Larch teaches him how to be an obstetrician, to “be of use,” then challenges the boy’s views of right and wrong when the doctor admits to sometimes performing abortions.
There are subplots, of course, especially involving a young couple, Wally and Candy (Jordan Whalen and Sara Hymes) that Homer befriends and eventually leaves the orphanage with. Their lives are further complicated by a messy love triangle and the onslaught of World War II.
Published as a book in 1985, The Cider House Rules became a movie in 1999. Anderson believes the play version, coconceived in the mid-1990s by Amadeus actor and former Michigander Tom Hulce, is much better. “The movie doesn’t capture the nuance and complexity,” he says. “At its core is storytelling, and the play captures Irving’s remarkable vision.”
Key to producing a play like this is having actors who can work within its epic structure. Between the two shows, 22 graduate and undergraduate actors will bring more than 90 parts to life. Anderson, who teaches acting classes at WSU, calls this year’s ensemble extraordinary.
Ellis, the second-year Hilberry student who plays Dr. Larch in the show, believes that mixing the two programs “forces all students to bring their A-game to the show.”
Rather than use elaborate sets to tell the story, The Cider House Rules will employ a main structure and simple set pieces to establish location. Ellis explains, “By putting a rolling chair or a bench in the same place, the audience realizes we are back at a location, whether that’s inside St. Cloud’s or in the front seat of a car.”
The biggest lesson in the show, Ellis says, is how it deftly handles the controversial subject of abortion. “It puts a human face on the issue,” he says. “It’s no longer easy to make a broad declaration ‘I’m pro-choice’ or ‘I’m pro-life’ when you get to know these characters and situations involved.”
Contact freelance writer JOHN MONAGHAN: firstname.lastname@example.org