Famous Door should be applauded for this show solely on the grounds of chutzpah: Peter Parnell’s adaptation of John Irving’s celebrated novel runs in two three-hour parts (the second opens February 16) and requires 30 actors to play more than 100 roles. Few theaters have dared to tackle the project since its Seattle Rep premiere in 1996. Of course, with their acclaimed production of Ghetto, Famous Door proved they’re not afraid of big shows or big risks. David Cromer and Marc Grapey’s staging is a pure joy, and they’ve rounded up some of the finest actors in town for this heartfelt, funny, wise, and unnerving tale. Larry Neumann Jr. cements his reputation as a local treasure with his performance as Dr. Wilbur Larch, the obstetrician-orphanage director-abortionist-ether addict played by Michael Caine in the movie. But where Caine opted for the avuncular and low-key, Neumann is acerbic and uncompromising–and far more in tune with Irving’s novel. Daniel Kuhlman as Homer Wells neatly balances the orphan’s naive Candide-like aspects with his growing sense of independence as he searches for a moral middle ground between Larch’s commitment to providing abortions and his own revulsion at the practice. Kevin Stark as Young Larch provides a poignant glimpse of the resolve calcified in Neumann’s obdurate doc. And the show’s orphans–particularly Jennifer Pompa’s seething Melony, Steven Schine’s chronically ill Fuzzy Stone, and Dan Waller’s determinedly hopeful Curly Day–are poignant reminders that throwaway children remain one of the saddest problems on the planet. Overall the first part was such a wonderful dream that by the end I felt like clamoring for more, just like Dr. Larch’s orphans begging for a little more bedtime reading. Victory Gardens Theater, second-floor main stage, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-871-3000. See listing for details of the run. $32. Note: “Cider House Festival” tickets for both parts every Saturday from February 15 through April 5 cost $75 (includes dinner at John Barleycorn Pub, 658 W. Belden).

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