Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.
For its final production(s) of the season, Hilberry Theatre goes what can only be described as “full throttle.” The Cider House Rules is a massive undertaking, a play so long the writers divided it into two still-long parts, which the company rehearsed in tandem (under the dual direction of Blair Anderson and Lavinia Hart), premiered on consecutive nights, and performs on alternating days. Conceived by Tom Hulce, Jane Jones, and Peter Parnell, and adapted by Parnell, the play is less a dramatization of John Irving’s novel of the same name, and more the book itself brought directly to the stage. With liberal use of shared, overlapping narration, the literary feel of the story translates well to this expansive following of numerous lives over several decades. The result is a powerful, dogmatic drama concerning the evolution of moral character and its application in the face of real life’s never-planned developments.
The plot of the stage play differs substantially from the 1999 film The Cider House Rules, despite their originating from the same source. This script is precisely faithful to the intricate text, which — in addition to better fleshing out nearly every character and relationship and fully formed motivation — can be shockingly frank about the issue of abortion. Set in the early to middle twentieth century, in a Maine orphanage/hospital where Dr. Wilbur Larch delivers unwanted babies for which he must find homes and also secretly and illegally terminates unwanted pregnancies, the show does not shy away from describing abortions gone awry and related medical procedures. However difficult it may be to hear (and see, using pantomime behind sheet-draped women on gurneys), the perspective is extremely relevant and necessary in order for the viewer to understand how Dr. Larch has come to believe that providing safe and medically sound abortions is the Lord’s work. Irving’s writing leaves little room to question; the alternative to safe abortion by a medical professional is made gruesomely clear. Indeed, the narrative never deviates from its support of the good doctor: even when his protégé, Homer Wells, doubts that he can personally perform an abortion, Homer clearly states that he has no problem with Larch continuing the practice. Among other stories and themes, this major one dovetails with young Homer’s lifelong aim to be “of use”; the story elegantly illustrates the gap between personal moral qualms and the needs of others —when no one else can or will help them, which prevails?
The Cider House Rules, Part 1: Here in St. Cloud’s concerns the formative years of Homer Wells, the boy who defied adoption. His foster placements fail to work out for various reasons, all illuminated by the show’s combination of dense narration and interwoven staging. The ensemble is like a revolving door of characters and costume changes (the latter a daunting feat bested by designer Christa Koerner), feeling like a cast of hundreds instead of the already intimidating twenty-two — including a number of Wayne State University undergraduate performers. At about the same time Dr. Larch begins to train Homer to be his assistant, the boy takes up with troublesome young orphan Melony, heartbreakingly violent and alone, who clumsily fashions a trade of her body for his loyalty. Eventually, the perpetual orphan grows strong enough to assert himself and awakens to possibilities beyond St. Cloud’s. Amid Homer’s story, the play jumps back in the timeline for an excellent extended flashback concerning the education of young Dr. Larch, early in his career when he cemented enduring attitudes about sex and medical ethics and fostered a lifelong relationship with ether. The two primary players in Larch’s morality tale are a discreet high-society prostitute and her crass and demanding daughter; the peculiarities of their alarming lives more than earn the characters’ recurring haunts of Larch’s druggy imagination.
At just shy of three hours (with two intermissions), Part 1 is nothing if not thorough, but it keeps the feeling of the first half of a novel: equally indispensable and incomplete. On the other side of the coin, the second half (also three hours long, with a single intermission) is not necessarily contingent on the first, but its one-minute recap of Part 1’s greatest hits is no substitute for the rich exposition and story that informs the characters’ subsequent actions. Reinforced by the consistent aesthetics in the set (a neutrally flexible space by Pegi Marshall-Amundsen that plays with architectural detail), lighting (astounding variation in effects by Jon Weaver), and sound (placidly simple instrumentals by Brian M. Scruggs, as well as occasional live music onstage, with dancing choreographed by Nira Pullin), the experience ultimately feels like a single play. Maximum results are achieved only by viewing both parts, in sequential order, which the Hilberry makes possible by its usual repertory schedule. Additionally, some viewers (including this Rogue) may be drawn to the challenge of the marathon double-header Saturdays, the whole thing presented in matinee and evening performances, with a long break for dinner between.
The Cider House Rules, Part 2: In Other Parts of the World separates Homer and Dr. Larch; indeed, nearly all the characters diverge into a cornucopia of story lines spanning 15 years, yet they’re kept fluid by the directors and cast. Homer finds a lasting friendship with a beautiful couple with ties to the apple business; the story of these three’s shared lives and sacrifices feels strongly sympathetic despite its unusual complexity. In seeking out Homer, Melony stumbles into a different relationship, sweet and deserved and contented, a partnership made electric by its rich and vulnerable performances. Dr. Larch grows older and more withdrawn as he grasps for a plan that will secure the future of all of St. Cloud’s crucial services, betting on the young man he taught and loved like a son. Meanwhile, Homer spends years at the orchard and cider house with the family he’s made, and his interactions with the hired migrant workers at each harvest are the key to his understanding of rules and codes within society, within groups, and within himself.
The memorable performances in the wide world of The Cider House Rules are too many to fully enumerate; the assertion that every actor has at least one standout role is insufficient but accurate. Regardless, the exceptional work of its principals cannot escape mention. As Homer Wells, Andrew Papa’s evolution from squalling infant to legal adult is subtle but full of earnest discovery; his adult Homer is a believable yet adaptable extension of the values so importantly ingrained in Part 1. Christopher Ellis’s passionate wisdom and vulnerable choices as Dr. Larch are a particular highlight, especially in concert with his fine physical aging in Part 2. The wildly dangerous Melony is given ferocity and heart in the kinetic performance of Samantha Rosentrater (with assists by fight choreographer Wayne David Parker). Sara Hymes and Jordan Whalen are well paired as young sweethearts who follow through on their expectations to be together, despite weathering incomprehensible blows. Just as important, however, is the cast as a whole; this ensemble moves as one through constantly shifting times and places, making the assembled paragraphs and chapters and intersecting arcs feel like a single, compelling story.
In all, The Cider House Rules cannot pretend to be a universally accessible play; viewers with strong ideological opposition to the subject matter may find the singular point of view distasteful, and the length may feel prohibitive for others. Relying on narration throughout by characters who fall out of and back into the scene may take some adjustment for viewers used to more conventional drama, but other than crucial unison lines that cannot help but be bellowed, Anderson and Hart and the cast make this a seamless and integral part of the storytelling. This complex, albeit moralistic, play is so rich in detail and character, referring to it as a tapestry would break the figurative loom. With beautiful visuals, a network of intriguing stories, and stupendous performances across the board, the Hilberry company makes St. Cloud’s — and other parts of the world — more than worth the extended stay.