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Making a Novel Choice

John Irving's difficult 'Cider House Rules' presented epic challenges for staging. But passion and persistence paid off.

June 28, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Certainly, in the world of books, there are more likely candidates for the stage than John Irving's 1985 novel "The Cider House Rules." Set in Maine, the lengthy, multi-generational saga covers everything from abortion, incest and poverty to domestic violence. At a time when audiences for serious drama are more elusive than the tsetse fly, a play with a large cast and not a single tune might be a tough sell; add such incendiary issues into the mix and the odds get even longer.

Such concerns did not deter actors Tom Hulce or Jane Jones, who co-conceived and directed the production of "The Cider House Rules" that will open at the Mark Taper Forum on July 11, nor Peter Parnell who adapted the novel for the stage. Six years and countless drafts into it, the trio are still consumed by the project, but the tale of how they got to this point is not a simple one.

"I had read the novel when it came out, but I hadn't realized the kind of passion that I had for this story," says Hulce, who was the first to conceive the adaptation. "I realized that it was completely about a piece that could only live on the stage, because the moments that I was identifying with were all moments that required your imagination."

The epic play met its first real audiences at the Seattle Repertory Theater when Part 1 premiered there in 1996, followed by Part 2 the following year. Both parts will be seen together at the Taper, in a six-hour marathon that can be seen either on two weekday nights or on a single weekend day. (Tickets are being sold only as a two-part package, not singly.)

"It's a crazy thing we're doing," admits Hulce. "It's flying in the face of everything that seems to be going on artistically and in the country. At a time when support for the arts is scrambling, here we are with the most overwhelming challenge logistically and . . . creatively because it's just such a huge thing."

Irving was protective of his work initially, and not enthused: "I thought that his ambitions for a play of that length were unrealistic," recalls the author of his early talks with Hulce. "When I saw the first draft of Part 1, I had difficulty seeing the play on the [stage]. Narrating the story in the language of the novel--in the third person voice and then having characters come alive--seemed very artificial to me.

"I put off seeing it as long as I could because I had been working on the screenplay," Irving continues, referring to the script that is now set to go into production for Miramax this September, directed by Lasse Halstrom. "I felt it was counter-productive to go see somebody's eight-hour version of my novel when I had been struggling to produce a two-hour version."

Eventually, however, the author relented. "When I saw Part 2 in February last year, I was just staggered by how that very element which on the page I had my doubts about was the element that I thought was the heart of the play's dramatic success. I think it's wonderful. I think it's fabulous."


Irving's story centers on the enigmatic orphanage director Dr. Wilbur Larch and his protege, the orphan Homer Wells. Beginning with the early experiences that lead Larch to decide to perform abortions, the novel chronicles Larch's life work at St. Cloud's Orphanage. Along with this, the story of Homer's coming of age at an apple farm on the coast unfolds. There, the young man comes both to accept and to reject the ethical and professional inheritance that he has received from Larch, before making his eventual return to St. Cloud's.

It is a tale of both personal and societal accountability. "It deals so strongly with what our responsibility is to the children we bring into this world," says Hulce. "This man offers an image that I know I've never seen before, which is this crusader for the abandoned and neglected and abused, standing with a baby in his arms, talking about why he has made the choice he has made."

It's that kind of imagery, in fact, that makes "The Cider House Rules" potentially volatile. "Even though the play is not specifically about the whole right to choose, it's very propitious timing," says Jones. "The play deals with abortion issues, and a man who, at a time when abortion is illegal, decides to deliver both the babies and the mothers.

"In other words, he will let a woman come and have her baby at the orphanage, and he will then take on finding a home for that baby if the mother does not want to keep it," she continues. "But if a woman feels as though she hasn't the strength or the ability or the financial position or the social support, then he gives abortions."

Not surprisingly, it took an epic collaboration to bring this work to the boards.

Hulce, Jones and Parnell first met in New York in 1982, while working on Parnell's "The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket" at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan. (Coincidentally, lighting designer James F. Ingalls was also involved with that production.)

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