Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Cider House Rules Rules

Reviewed by Michael Dare

At this point, I find the productions of Book-It Repertory inseparable from the books themselves. Every show I've seen has impeccably mirrored the source material. If you didn't like their production of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, it's because you don't like Tom Robbins, not because you don't like Book-It Repertory. They have found a magical spot, right in the middle of literature and theatre and bedtime story, where dad's rendition of Dr. Seuss has been replaced by a brilliant collection of adapters, directors, and performers who miraculously and precisely subjugate their needs to the needs of the original author in spectacular displays of talent and stagecraft.
If they're doing a book you love, you will fall in love again. If they're doing a book you haven't read but discover you hate, hey, at least it was over in just a couple hours, and you can sort of say you've read it.
I've got my own little list of authors whom, after reading one book of theirs, I said to myself OMG, I must read every single word this writer ever writes, and John Irving is one of them. I read The Cider House Rules when it first came out, didn't like it as much as The World According to Garp, but saw the subsequent movie, enjoyed it, and yet it wasn't till halfway through the Book-It theatrical production that it dawned on me it was a masterpiece, WAY better than Garp, not just good, not just great, but a genuine masterpiece, encompassing the highest possible principles that make up the foundation of Art with a capital A. It's hard to imagine a more sensitive issue treated with more dexterity or vision, more than a novel, more than a play but the most intimate expression of the human condition known to man, to make up stories that encompass everything our pathetic species is up to, seen from every angle, pretending that objectivity is possible while subjecting us to a funhouse mirror of reality where you know it's true, you can feel the truthiness, but it's never looked like this before. If you don't know that art can illuminate, can make you aware of every troubling aspect of life and death, of what we're doing on this planet, that it can ask the deepest of questions in the most profound manner, why do we treat each other so badly and what, just what, can one single man can do about it, you must see this production immediately.
Calling it Dickensian is too easy and too apt. Anyone who starts listing the similarities between The Cider House Rules and David Copperfield or Oliver Twist will find themselves in a whirlwind of academic trivia. You do it. It makes no difference. You don't have to have read Dickens to get Irving. When he quotes the opening sentence of David Copperfield, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show," that's all we need to know. We're going to get variations on that theme brought to an incredible height.
There seems to be no question as to who the hero is in the life of Dr. Wilbur Larch, the founder of St. Clouds hospital and orphanage in Maine in the '30s. Just ask the hundreds of orphans and pregnant women who have gone through his door who the hero is of THEIR lives and they will answer Dr. Wilbur Larch.
Except for one. Homer Wells is an orphan who literally owes his life to Dr. Wilbur Larch, and yet he makes it his life's quest to be the goddam hero of his own goddam life. To do so, he must rebel against the only authority figure he knows, Dr. Wilbur Larch, for whom he's been participating in abortions for years, and here's where a six-hour theatrical production, broken into two pieces, beats the hell out what we can expect from a mere movie. It's with the telling of Larch's back-story that the melodrama reaches epic proportions.
Let's say you're a doctor and a patient is brought to you, a thirteen year old girl, pregnant, for the third time, by her father, a serial rapist, and the previous pregnancies had caused such scarring of the uterus that regular childbirth would be impossible, no choice but a Caesarian if the pregnancy is brought to term, yet it's early enough to simply end the ordeal for the child, a fifteen minute procedure you're completely capable of performing. Such is Wilbur's dilemma.
Or let's say you're a teenage orphan who wants to be a doctor asked to participate in surgery that just happens to include the scrapping of a uterus. Would you refuse to participate once you saw in a trash can what was scraped from the uterus, a tiny being that never took a breath? Such is Homer's dilemma.
Any theatrical production demands you identify with SOMEONE, whoever's closest to you, but in general we rely upon the dramatist to supply us with a simple protagonist, antagonist, and conclusion. Irving muddies the waters with a protagonist with a protagonist. Homer's savior, Dr. Larch, is clearly the hero of Homer's life since, after all, he's the one that decided to let the pregnancy go to term, since every female visitor to Saint Clouds leaves her baby there, whether born or not. Irving, and his brilliant adapter Peter Parnell, pull off this hat trick with no moralizing or proselytizing, just a lot of compassion. Though it's an incredibly entertaining morality play, it's not a lecture on morality. Irving's too smart for that. He approaches it from every possible viewpoint, women who shouldn't but do, women who should but don't, women who's lives are made better and others much much worse, husbands who want the baby but wives who don't, rejected patients who end up dead by going somewhere else, even the incompetent abortionist who kills as many as they help and they're not evil because, well, at least they're doing something. The subject has never been approached more thoroughly, without lying platitudes or easy slogans, recognizing that the abortion question is as complicated as it gets. Extremely graphic descriptions of the abortion process are accompanied by equally graphic descriptions of sex, treating them both equally, a perfectly rational approach since you can't have one without the other. Irving tells you much more than you ever knew about his subject. He tells you everything but what to think about it, figuring that reality is the best teacher, that you can't make up rules, even in a cider house, that you've got to take everything on a case by case basis. There's an episode of Mad Men where they're given the assignment of trying to find advertisers for an episode of The Defenders about a woman who got an abortion and the best they can come up with is lipstick. Abortion's a hard sell artistically as it's a tricky subject entirely devoid of easy answers. At the end of The Cider House Rules, one would be hard pressed to say whether John Irving was pro or anti, just smart.
This production is a perfect example of why the six-hour approach is imperative with certain novels. There's a death by drowning during a log jam in The Cider House Rules, one of many many tidbits left out of the film but left in the play. All the events of Last Night in Twisted River, Irving's latest, are set in motion by a death by drowning during a log jam. Leave the log-jam out of The Cider House Rules and you're leaving out one of the best things about John Irving, the themes and sub-text and entertaining quirks that tie all his work together: the wrestling, the seduction of the innocent, the dismemberments, the logging, the oral sex, the bears, god, what's with the bears. One of the treats of indulging oneself in the work of any great novelist is reveling in their personal obsessions, and Book-It never neglects to give us that same thrill.
A massive shout out to director Jane Jones and the entire ensemble cast of nurses, orphans, and derelicts who inhabit this mad world. Every one of them had a moment to shine and that they did. Dr. Larch, one of the most compassionate and empathetic characters of all time, is played by Peter Crook, and his Larch is so on the money, so innately American, it makes you wonder what the hell they were thinking casting a Cockney Michael Caine in the film. Crook is way more like the George C. Scott who played the part in my mind. While most of the characters remain steadfastly who they are, Homer is the one with the arc, the Candide of the piece who grows in front of our eyes, and Conner Toms is well up to the task. I can't wait to see who he eventually becomes in Part 2, coming this fall. 
But you've got to see Part 1 first. All you princes of Ivars, you kings of Mercer Island, get thee to Book-It Repertory before it's too late.
Through July 11. Get your tickets here.

"You may disapprove, but you may not be ignorant or look away" —Dr. Larch to Homer

Homer Wells (Connor Toms, left), the never-adopted orphan becomes a surrogate son, and a medical protégé to the orphanage director, Dr. Larch (Peter Crook).  Doctor Larch and nurses (Melinda Deane & Julie Jamieson) help a pregnant patient (Mary Murfin Bayley). Photos by Adam Smith.