The Cider House Rules

Famous Door Theatre

at Victory Gardens Theater

A pregnant friend told me recently that she intends to create a T-shirt for her tyke that inverts a standard anti-abortion slogan: “It’s a choice, not a baby” is the legend she wants.

Dr. Wilbur Larch, the cantankerous obstetrician-orphanage director at the heart of John Irving’s 1985 novel The Cider House Rules, would probably approve. But to describe either the novel or Peter Parnell’s sweeping 1996 two-part stage adaptation as being about abortion is to obscure the work’s larger moral framework. (The truncated 1999 film version, also written by Irving, does make abortion central, sacrificing a great deal of nuance and narrative.) Larch is the conduit for Irving’s abiding conundrum: how can people be of use in the world? The abortion controversy–because it calls forth such a maelstrom of emotion–is simply the most incendiary means of raising the dramatic stakes.

It’s noteworthy that Irving wrote the novel during the Reagan years–and was avowedly influenced by Charles Dickens. Though set during an 80-year span from the late 19th century to the 1950s, this excoriation of deadly faux morality and neo-Victorianism clearly echoes the outrage at institutional hypocrisy appropriate both to Dickens’s age and to the 1980s. Of course America’s treatment of children is timeless–we’re notorious for loving the concept of “the child” (particularly as a marketing demographic) while despising lots of actual children: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 12 million of our youngest residents live in poverty.

However, one needn’t be pro-choice to admire David Cromer and Marc Grapey’s adroit, intelligent, plangent staging of The Cider House Rules for Famous Door. Joe Scheidler would probably die of apoplexy watching it, and the sheer volume of gynecological detail might offend the squeamish. But the play’s most significant feature is its unwavering focus on how our choices, whatever they are, affect others. As Dr. Larch tells his orphaned protege Homer Wells, who balks at learning how to perform abortions, “You are not permitted to hide. You are not permitted to look away. You are welcome to disapprove. But you are not welcome to be ignorant.”

The first part of the play (which opened last month and is still running) spends a great deal of time on Dr. Larch’s early years–largely excised from Irving’s screenplay. We learn that his ether addiction is the result of a bout with gonorrhea, contracted during his first and only sexual encounter. The ghostly character of Mrs. Eames (“rhymes with screams,” as she helpfully reminds Larch), the prostitute who initiated and infected him, haunts the edges of the play. Young Dr. Larch witnesses first her death from a toxic abortifacient, then the death of her daughter from a botched back-alley abortion–an abortion he refused to perform. Larch’s exploratory visit to the Bosch-like world of the abortionist’s den cements his determination never to deny another woman the procedure, just as Homer’s later examination of an aborted fetus convinces him the fetus has a soul.

Kevin Stark as the young Larch neatly captures the character’s impatience with official idiocy and his self-immolating dedication to others, traits that reach full flower in Larry Neumann Jr.’s elder Larch. Where Michael Caine’s doc in the film had a bit of the roue about him–flirting and dancing with the nurses at Saint Cloud’s Orphanage in Maine–Neumann’s crusty Larch aches with a sense of loss. Surrounded by children abandoned by their parents but not truly his either, Larch makes arm’s-length attempts at nurturing. As he maintains, “If you fail to withhold love at an orphanage, you will create an orphanage that no orphan will willingly leave.”

The second part of the play focuses more on Homer’s life and the choices he and others make. (A fast-moving prologue recapitulates part one.) At Ocean View Apple Orchard, Homer finds love with the good-hearted Candy Kendall, who unfortunately is also the lover of his benefactor and friend, Wally Worthington. Homer and Candy conceive a child, whom they pretend to have adopted from Saint Cloud’s. When Wally returns from World War II a paraplegic, Candy decides that she can’t choose between them: she loves them both. Wally needs her, so she marries him, but she maintains a connection with Homer.

The play is rife with both outrageous humor and sorrowful truths about the nature of love. The energetic, outdoorsy couple who adopt Homer in part one, the Winkles, meet an untimely end through a freak accident. Cromer and Grapey’s direction of this scene turns on a dime–one moment we’re chuckling at the duo’s puppylike antics, the next we’re in shock that they’ve been swept away so suddenly and completely.

The show’s many moments of simple magic, heart-stopping beauty, and subtle wit often rely on motifs woven together. Larch complains that he won’t live long enough to eat the apples from the trees Homer plants at Saint Cloud’s, but when we next see him he’s munching a giant red Delicious. Larch kisses Homer in part one after his protege successfully oversees a difficult delivery. In part two, when the board of the orphanage wishes to replace Larch (presumably with someone who won’t perform illegal abortions), the aging doctor resolutely declares, “Let me make no wasted moves”–and kisses each of the sleeping orphans before hatching plans to make Homer his successor.

Cromer and Grapey keep the action and their cast of 30 moving well. And though some of the narration is lost from time to time (particularly early in part two, which at the opening felt rougher than part one), the changes between locales and times are cogent, greatly enhanced by Brian Sidney Bembridge’s rough-hewn but imaginative set and Jeff Pines’s understated but effective lighting. Though Neumann and Daniel Kuhlman as Homer deserve immense praise for their performances, which take on delicious shadings over the two parts, they’re well matched by Joey Honsa’s forthright and charming Candy; Laura T. Fisher’s poignant Nurse Edna, who harbors a decades-long love for Larch; Anthony Flemming III’s mysterious, threatening Mr. Rose (head of migrant workers at the orchard); and Jennifer Pompa’s force of nature, the orphan Melony. Nearly absent from the movie, Melony is Homer’s nemesis and his conscience–a girl who initiates him sexually at Saint Cloud’s then hunts him for years afterward, furious that he broke his promise not to leave the orphanage without her. Ferocious, funny, and irreparably damaged, Pompa’s Melony is one of the gutsiest, most riveting elements of this production.

Toward the end of part two, when Homer’s son, Angel, finds out that Rose Rose, Mr. Rose’s daughter, is being abused by her father, he wants to take her under his wing–something she decidedly doesn’t want. Wally gently tells him, “You can’t protect anyone. You can just love them.” As Homer is fond of saying earnestly, “Right.” In Irving’s imperfect world, under his rules, we cannot pretend to know what’s best for anyone else. We can only give them what they ask for and accept what they can give us in return.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.