Transgressive sexuality (in Irving's case, it's not homosexuality so much as incest), endearingly lost souls, physical and emotional assaults on women and children, ironic wisecracking, sudden and violent death, tickling but barely substantial characters crammed together like feathers in a pillow--all this constitutes the average John Irving opus. Add orphans, a serious social issue, and stir, and you've got Irving's most Dickensian novel, The Cider House Rules.
Before the book was condensed into a movie starring Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire (whose pre-webslinging presence may cause the re-released version to be retitled The Spider House Rules), Peter Parnell adapted the novel for stage presentation. Parnell turned it not into an ordinary play, but into a sprawling, two-night readers' theater presentation doused in hard cider--pungent, dizzying, sharp and sweet.
The actors not only play characters, but narrate the action. Sometimes one will drop in and out of character from one phrase to the next, appending, for example, the words "said Dr. Larch" to whatever Dr. Larch just said. Sentences ricochet from one actor to another, words bouncing out of two or three different mouths before slamming into a period. It's like a relay race by a Greek chorus cloned from Dick Estell.
The ever-ambitious Arizona Repertory Theatre at the UA is presenting the two halves of The Cider House Rules on separate evenings through March. The director is Harold Dixon, who not coincidentally mounted the two-part Dickens extravaganza Nicholas Nickelby at the UA several years ago. Irving's work is so Dickens-drenched that in it, Great Expectations and David Copperfield are read to the denizens of an orphanage every night, and orphan-hero Homer Wells becomes obsessed with a Dickens line about being "the hero of his own life."
Homer is a multiply rejected foundling (not because of character flaws, but through bad luck with potential parents). He's a permanent resident of a Maine orphanage run by Dr. Wilbur Larch, an obstetrician-abortionist. Most of the action in Part 1 takes place in the 1920s and '30s, but there are flashbacks to the 1880s, when a medically unfortunate sexual experience followed by encounters with the victims of botched abortions set the young doctor on his career path: offering desperate women safe, if illegal, abortions, while also delivering the babies of women who want to carry them to term but cannot keep them, and then finding homes for the children.
Homer, happy to remain at the orphanage, becomes Dr. Larch's protégé, mastering the art of midwifery as a teenager. Ultimately, though not condemning Larch's actions, Homer realizes he cannot perform abortions himself. At the end of Part 1, the sheltered and naïve Homer, age 20, sets off into the world. His exploits, and the meaning of the play's title, are revealed in Part 2, which will be reviewed in next week's issue.
This being a student production, many things come off exceptionally well amid notes that aren't pitch-perfect. Many actors attempting a Down East accent blurt out something that's more Down South. And Nathan Gross, despite all the white in his hair, doesn't look a day over 30, so the gravity and restraint this able actor brings to the fairly old Dr. Larch can be misinterpreted as a lack of involvement.
Somehow, it's easier to suspend disbelief and accept Michael Tennant as a pre-pubescent. Tennant--who also has the most convincing accent--is an endearing but never simpering Homer, thoroughly persuasive as the character grows from toddler to teen.
As Melony, Homer's troubled tomboy-girlfriend (Irving's obligatory wronged child who causes complications as an adult), Shoshana Freisinger is excellent at physically conveying anger and resentment, and nicely hints at her character's vulnerability. Seventeen other cast members play multiple roles; among the most memorable are Allison Dragony as Fuzzy Stone, a wheezing, wheelchair-bound orphan, and Catherine Kresge, serene and lovely as Candy Kendall, who will be a pivotal character in Part 2.
The costumes, scenery and lighting are up to the UA's highest standards, and director Dixon nicely choreographs what could collapse into a jumble of anecdote. Part 1--nearly two hours and 40 minutes, including intermission--would work better if playwright Parnell had sliced off a couple of chunks of exposition. But the play and the performance both become increasingly involving in the second act, as the actors tell less and show more.
They don't show skin, though, despite a couple of simulated sex acts. Sex without nudity, love without family, vocation without forethought--it's all possible, and it's all in The Cider House Rules.