'The Cider House Rules, Part 2' squeezes out fine performances from a compelling script.

In a Maine cider house where migrant orchard workers bunk, the benevolent owners post rules to protect the workers from their own foolishness. But the men in the cider house live by their own rules--practical laws that accommodate reality. Those rules may be liberating, they may be cruel, but they arise from the necessities of imperfect lives.

Homer Wells has fallen in with the orchard's owners, but all his life he, too, has struggled with dual sets of rules, trying to balance what's just, what's practical and what's necessary.

When we last saw Homer ("Bleak House," March 6), he was leaving the orphanage/abortion clinic where he'd spent the first 20 years of his life. That was the end of The Cider House Rules, Part 1, Peter Parnell's stage adaptation of the John Irving novel. The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre is presenting Part 1 and its sequel in repertory through this month, and as good as the first half was, the second is even finer.

Partly, that's because the script for Part 2 is even more involving. Parnell combines narrated conventional dramatic presentation with readers' theater, and the participants tell the story almost as much as they enact it. Part 1 was a headlong rush through Homer's childhood in the 1920s and '30s, with 20 actors each playing half a dozen characters. Part 2, set in the '40s and '50s, slows down and slims down, spending more time on a few key characters who are more fully fleshed out than before. Part 1 is giddy and funny, but seems taken down in shorthand from dictation; Part 2, more patient and serious, offers more legible motivations and emotions.

Not only is the script more involving, but the University of Arizona student actors dig even deeper into their characters.

Michael Tennant is superb as Homer Wells, maturing from a sheltered, good-hearted kid to a well-intentioned adult caught in a love triangle and a crisis of conscience. Homer is a talented but uncertified obstetrician who has dodged his calling because he can't square his anti-abortion convictions with the needs of troubled women. Tennant gives a touching, engaging portrayal of a man incapacitated by his own kindness.

As Dr. Larch, Homer's mentor and surrogate father, Nathan Gross starts well and grows even stronger as the character ages into his 90s, gradually making human connections he had previously avoided, while scheming to bring Homer back to the orphanage and persuade him, in effect, to take over the family business.

Catherine Kresge and Jason Moore provide the two other points of Homer's love triangle and remain unfailingly sympathetic no matter what befalls them. Shoshana Freisinger is also highly effective as the tough, single-minded Melony, the angry girlfriend Homer left behind; she could turn out to be either the agent of Homer's destruction or the instrument of his redemption.

As the 15-year-old mother who will offer Homer's greatest moral challenge, Allegra Lucas is terrific--at once childlike, independent, frightened, knowing and confused. Damu Quarles cuts a surprisingly sympathetic figure as her father, an outwardly agreeable but potentially dangerous man.

Director Harold Dixon keeps the text moving fluidly among the actors and exercises just enough restraint to prevent the most emotional scenes from descending into melodrama. Dixon's use of stage space, his weaving of movement, remains especially effective. Every other element of the production falls into place equally well.

The Cider House Rules is a big show beyond the present resources of any other local company. Not only is it big, but it receives a compelling treatment that deserves the attention of a wide audience.

During the ongoing state budget crisis, this production is the best possible argument for the value of the UA's fine arts programs; it's a showcase of the UA's high artistic standards and a tremendous contribution to the community.

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