Novel Approach

Wilbur Larch, a compassionate doctor, head of a combination orphanage and obstetrics clinic near a remote town in Maine in the early 20th century, aids the unmarried pregnant women who throng there by performing not only deliveries but abortions, for reasons that lie deep in his own tormented past as well as in his rational beliefs. Though the abortions, being illegal, are strictly kept secret, the doctor is obliged to reveal them to a male orphan, Homer Wells, whom the orphanage has been unable to place in a foster home, and who has instead been raised by Dr. Larch as an in-house medical disciple, skilled in every aspect of obstetrical surgery before he is out of his teens.

Though Homer may be said to know all about where babies come from, sex, all thought of which has been shunned by Dr. Larch since his own early traumatic experiences, is a mystery to the doctor's disciple. It's not made clearer by the changeable behavior of Melony, the analogously unplaceable female orphan who both attracts and repels him. Homer's confusion, which with other evidence leads him to understand the nature of the work he's been doing, makes him refuse to perform any more abortions. He even considers giving up medicine as a career, just as a series of coincidental events bring Part One of The Cider House Rulesto a close.

I went through this summary to prove to myself, as much as to anyone else, that the notion of making John Irving's novel (which I haven't read) into a two-evening, six-hour-plus play is amply justified. Trust me; what you read above barely skims over an eighth of what's contained in Part One alone. Irving's work may not be bursting with memorable eccentrics and melodra- matic plot turns in the manner of Nicholas Nickleby, but if Part One is any indication, The Cider House Rules has a bigness of both breadth and depth that validates the adaptation's size as well as its scope. It was worth doing, and as staged by Tom Hulce and Jane Jones, it is well enough done to be something of an event in its bravado, its zest, and its humane alertness. In a city where the artistic powers sometimes seem to have decreed that theater will have no large-scale projects, nothing with boldness or reach, The Cider House Rules is an unexpected windfall, like a dividend check from a property we thought had been seized by grafters and foreign invaders.

Colm Meaney, top, and Josh Hamilton in The Cider House Rules: a Homer with epic traumas
Joan Marcus
Colm Meaney, top, and Josh Hamilton in The Cider House Rules: a Homer with epic traumas

Details

The Cider House Rules, Part One: Here in St. Cloud's
By Peter Parnell, based on the novel by John Irving
Atlantic Theatre
336 West 20th Street
239-6200

The Lonesome West
By Martin McDonagh
Lyceum Theatre
45th Street and Broadway
239-6200

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Peter Parnell's adaptation uses story-theater tactics to keep the book's narrative flowing while compressing its mass. The characters introduce themselves in the third person before moving into dialogue; they take up relevant snatches of other characters' sentences, or hover at the sides of the stage to supply unspoken data in other people's scenes. The shifts work seamlessly, except when they're intended as dramatic shocks. The third-person voice allows us glimpses into the minds of people for whom conventional soliloquies would seem outlandish, or in situations where long conversational monologues would make these taciturn New Englanders seem chattering bores. At such moments, Parnell finds sparks that illuminate these damaged and introverted souls from inside, like candles in a row of jack-o'-lanterns.

The Halloween image isn't inapt, since Irving's novel appears to trade on the grotesque and the medically shocking, though in a demure, deadpan tone that's the opposite of sensationalist. He is, or aspires to be, the Dickens of this Sadeian Age, when everything's permitted and no outrage too extreme to be imagined, but human compassion is still the world's only saving grace. Here, as in other Irving novels, sex is inextricably connected to suffering and disaster, never to pleasure or fulfillment. Its product, if not circumvented by the surgeon and the waste bin, only goes on to the spiritual orphanages of childhood before growing up to repeat the cycle of torment by producing more unhappy offspring. In the boys' wing of Dr. Larch's orphanage, they eternally read aloud David Copperfield; in the girls' wing, Jane Eyre: seduction, betrayal, ruin, madness, and death are what get you to the shakily happy endings.

There are mitigations within this dark vision, which Hulce and Jones sensibly take pains to include onstage. John Arnone's two-level set, using the Atlantic's full stage area, is spacious as well as grim; David Zinn's costumes make colorful interventions on it that match nature's changing seasons as well as the story's tonal shifts. Dan Wheetman's underscoring, performed live by two resourceful cast members on a small army of instruments, sneaks hints of emotional solace into the darkest scenes. Hulce and Jones trade heavily, too often for my taste, on raucousness as an interruptive effect. (Is there some feminist point in the girls' wing being so much noisier than the boys'?) And they overwork the characters' repeated tag lines (like the doctor's "Good night, you princes of Maine") to a degree that adds needless bulk rather than cumulative force.

The negative points are small blemishes, however. As Parnell conveys it, the story carries substance as well as weight, while the staging, even with its flaws noted, keeps the substance alive and evolving all through. The performances, like the characters, grow steadily in interest and stature. I wish Josh Hamilton's Homer were a little more Yankee in his look and sound, and that Jillian Armanente's Melony found more varied tones in her early scenes, but I have gotten to like them, and care what becomes of them, while Colm Meaney's Dr. Larch has deepened, over his several hours of stage time, into a figure of Hamlet-like complexity. When I go back for Part Two (for which the Atlantic is currently scrambling to raise money), it's Meaney's presence that will be hovering in my memory: his tall, rigid body and masklike face, the taut-held mouth just starting to droop wearily at the edges, while the deep-set eyes give off the dull glow of a fading fire. Ross Gibby as Larch's younger self, Marceline Hugot as Nurse Edna, Leslie Hendrix, Katie MacNichol, James Chesnutt, and Martin Moran are, so far, the most notable among the seeming multitudes who track through the evening. Hurry up and get Part Two on; I want to find out how it ends.

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