Lawrence B. Johnson / Special to The Detroit News
Even for Wayne State University’s ambitious theater training program, the enterprise that hits the stage this weekend, an epic two-play adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, is extraordinary enough to demand, well, two directors.
Playwright Peter Parnell’s theatrical take on Irving’s 1985 novel involves just two lead actors — but also another 20 more who play multiple roles in this story of a lad who grows up in an orphanage, then drinks deeply of life in the wider world only to discover that his heart lies at his roots.
The huge cast has been drawn almost equally from WSU’s graduate Hilberry Theatre and the undergraduate Bonstelle Theatre programs.
Part I of The Cider House Rules, called Here in St. Cloud’s, tells the early story of Homer Wells, an orphan whose life and values are shaped by the deeply compassionate orphanage director Dr. Wilbur Larch, who trains Homer in obstetrics and in what the doctor views as the merciful techniques of abortion. But Homer will have none of terminating fetuses, and soon leaves the orphanage to find adventure and love in the second play, titled In Other Parts of the World.
“First and foremost, The Cider House Rules is terrific storytelling,” says Blair Anderson, who shares directing duty with his WSU colleague Lavinia Hart. “It’s really a Dickensian tale, much like Great Expectations. The orphanage is a metaphor for all of us. We all begin a bit lost in the world and must grope to find our way in it.”
Spanning eight decades, from Dr. Larch’s own early manhood in the 1880s, the two plays careen through some 180 brief scenes that flit, as Anderson puts it, “from the orphanage to a hospital to a movie theater to a pizza bar. And along the way, the actors, each playing four to eight characters, must fully engage those characters and make you care about them in scenes that may be only 30 seconds long.”
The quick shifts also require economical sets and props to suggest place and action, adds Hart.
“A row of wooden chairs becomes transformed into beds or stair steps or become logs in a flooding river that sweeps away a couple of characters,” she says. “Being able to do this without pyrotechnicals or the verisimilitude of film is a great challenge, but it’s also the basis of all good theater.”
To draw the audience into this briskly moving story, the directors have urged the actors to penetrate the “fourth wall” and speak directly to the audience — as when at bedtime Dr. Larch bids the orphans, “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”
“That benediction is hope for tomorrow,” says Hart. “If we can live through the hardships of life, we will be princes and kings.”
Lawrence B. Johnson is a cultural writer and critic. firstname.lastname@example.org