Review: Hilberry’s ‘Cider House’ rules

By Martin F. Kohn

The original article may be found here.

The cider house doesn’t even show up until Part Two, but rules are present from the beginning of the play The Cider House Rules and the John Irving novel it’s based on.

Whether in mind or posted on the cider house wall there are always rules: rules to live by, rules to ignore, rules to joyfully defy, rules to grudgingly obey, rules we impose on others, rules we compel ourselves to follow.

You’ve got to know when to make ’em, know when to break ’em. But the most important rule of all is to be “of use.”

In bringing to life John Irving’s 550-page tale of orphan Homer Wells and his mentor, the obstetrician-abortionist Dr. Wilbur Larch, Blair Anderson and Lavinia Hart’s beautifully realized two-part Hilberry Theatre production emphasizes the significance of principles. More importantly, it brings John Irving’s tale to life.

Give credit to New York playwright Peter Parnell who turned the book into a six-hour play. Sticking to the novel in story and spirit, judiciously eliminating tangential scenes, excising a few characters of middling significance and adding a ghost or two, Parnell does better by Irving than Irving himself did writing the 1999 movie. Of course, Irving had to fit it all into a two-hour commercially viable film. He still managed to win an Academy Award for his efforts.

Proceeding at a pace a little closer to the novel’s, the play is more satisfying. Part One begins with Homer’s birth in the 1920s at St. Cloud’s Orphanage in Maine and ends with his leave-taking at about age 19 for the Maine apple orchard that gives The Cider House Rules its name. Part Two begins there, incorporates World War II and extends into the late 1950s.

Geographically, Homer doesn’t range very far. But his life’s journey is another story. Growing up in the orphanage, Homer is adopted three times, each adoption turning out worse than the one before, until he realizes that his true home is St. Cloud’s. Seeing in Homer a worthy successor, Dr. Larch teaches him medicine. By the time he’s a teenager Homer is a competent obstetrician but comes to oppose abortion on moral grounds. Dr. Larch performs abortions, also on moral grounds.

As a young adult, Homer becomes friends with a couple who own an apple orchard and his life assumes a new richness and numerous complications. The most important subplot involves Melony, who grows up with Homer at the orphanage and then spends years searching for him. She is foul-mouthed, bullying and energized by rage, but fiercely and oddly honest.

Directors Anderson and Hart (that has a nice ring to it) have cast the show brilliantly, with Hilberry regulars and undergraduate actors and not a weak link among them.

Cider House has 22 actors playing more than 60 characters, but rests disproportionately on the two who play Homer and Dr. Larch – Andrew Papa and Christopher Ellis, respectively. Papa is a charismatic Homer, eager to learn; things dawn on him in a manner that feels entirely natural. Ellis negotiates two very different sides of Dr. Larch, the guilt, love and other emotions he feels and his unwillingness to let any of it show. Both actors age over the play’s years: Homer grows up, Dr. Larch grows old.

Melony has more feelings than she knows what do with and Samantha Rosentrater conveys that with compelling tension.

Among actors with multiple parts, Erman Jones is a delight as Curly Day, an eager puppy of an orphan, and Carollette Phillips does impressive double duty as sickly orphan Fuzzy Stone and as a young woman with a painful secret and the unlikely name of Rose Rose.

A world has been created on the Hilberry stage and it demands your attention.

SHOW DETAILS: The Cider House Rules, Parts I & II continues in repertory at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave.. Tickets: $25-$30. For information: 313-577-2972 or

Part I: Here in St. Cloud’s: April 2, 6, 7, 9, 14, 16, 21, 23, 28, 30, May 5, 7, 12.
Part II: In Other Parts of the World: April 2, 8, 9, 13, 15, 16, 22, 23, 29, 30, May 6, 7, 13, 14.


3 thoughts on “Review: Hilberry’s ‘Cider House’ rules

  1. Just saw part 1, and totally looking forward to part 2. I’m a huge fan of the book, and it is a huge feat to have written a script that encompasses the entire story and works on stage. The production/direction/acting are at times incandescent and there are moments that brought me to tears. The scene at the end of act 1, when Homer and Dr. Larch are taking in the sea air, was breathtaking–I could feel the breeze coming from the coast to St. Clouds.

    On a deeper level–it takes courage to stage this play at this moment in this country. I only wish it could get out to many more people, there are many who profoundly need to get this. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: A Look back at The Kentucky Cycle, 2004 « The Hilberry Theatre

  3. I have been going to the Hilberry for about 25 years. There are a few plays I can count on one hand that are absolutely epic: Nicholas Nickelby; The Grapes of Wrath; The Kentucky Cycle, and now Cider House Rules, Parts I and II, is one of them. In a strong season that included “Of Mice and Men” and “Richard III”, the finale is a memorable and superb production, a brave choice of theater, with outstanding performances from every actor in the company, truly not a weak one in the bunch. I have to specifically mention Christopher Ellis, and Samantha Rosentrater who have done the best work I have ever seen from them. And this does not in any way slight any of the other actors. To All involved in this production: MAGNIFICENT! Thank you for theater we will not forget. Thank you for reminding us what theater can do.

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