Variety.com Review - The Cider House Rules - Part One: Here in St. Cloud's
Review by Charles Isherwood
May 10, 1999
"There's a lot you've missed," exclaims a new friend to protagonist Homer
Wells near the conclusion of part one of The Cider House Rules, and
the audience, brought up short by the play's ending even as Homer takes off
for a new beginning, can surely relate to the feeling. The Atlantic Theater
Co.'s fiscally determined decision to produce only the opening half of this
expansive stage adaptation of John Irving's novel is certainly understandable.
(Hopes are that part two, previously staged along with the first in both
Seattle and Los Angeles, will follow this summer if critical and B.O. reception
to part one is strong.) But it's also frustrating --- we barely get to the
apples by the end of part one's three-plus hours, let alone the cider.
While the Atlantic's production has much to recommend it, it's hard to form
a complete impression of a work that draws to a close just when it is finally
beginning to deepen. Peter Parnell's adaptation of the book, as directed
by Tom Hulce and Jane Jones, is full of cheeky, charmingly unsophisticated
theatrical vigor, and Irving's cockeyed characters are indubitably stageworthy,
but the first installment of The Cider House Rules never shakes the
feeling of being a novel acted out. Despite plenty of energetic performances,
its characters remain steadfastly two-dimensional, flattened by continually
being presented to us through the distancing prism of the novelist's narrative
The story opens at the St. Cloud's orphanage in Maine, presided over by the
businesslike Dr. Wilbur Larch (Colm Meaney). The time is the early 20th century,
when adoption was still the only approved method of dealing with unwanted
pregnancies. But with the aid of loyal nurses Edna (played with moist, sentimental
glee by Marceline Hugot) and Angela (a wry, dry Peggy Roeder), Dr. Larch
also secretly performs abortions.
In flashbacks, we learn the history of his potentially criminal compassion:
Dr. Larch's sexual initiation came at the hands of a prostitute whose daughter
later begged him for an abortion. Larch, just out of medical school, refused,
and the woman died from a botched procedure obtained in more desperate quarters.
The young doctor, meanwhile, gave up sex altogether after contracting a venereal
disease from his encounter with the pregnant girl's mother. Sex and guilt
and medicine and morality are thus inextricably mixed together in Dr. Larch's
buttoned-down heart, and he escapes the pain of his past with the aid of
the same ether he uses to anesthetize his patients.
Among the orphans of St. Cloud's is Homer Wells (Josh Hamilton), a hapless
child whose three adoptions have failed to take root. As the young boy grows
up, he becomes a protege and disciple of Dr. Larch, graduating at a strangely
early age from reading Dickens to the orphans before bedtime to assisting
in the doctor's medical procedures.
Feistily pushing her way from the periphery of the tale to its center whenever
she can is another orphan, Melony, played with astonishing, delightful physicality
by a buzzbomb of an actress named Jillian Armenante, even if her brash comic
style is more post-"Seinfeld" than pre-war. Melony, also luckless in getting
adopted, befriends Homer and urges him to question Dr. Larch's rules (she
wants to find her real parents) --- and by extension the morality of his
In the early going, the production often seems to be a little besotted with
its own cleverness --- adult actors playing children in ill-fitting kids'
clothes, providing the sounds of squealing infants and minimalist effects
such as snowfall and whistling winds. The show's broad comic tone and swirling
pace, with the actors rushing on and off the stage and up and down the Atlantic's
aisles, are pushed to the point of aggressive cuteness.
But it gradually settles down, and the more subtle attractions of the tale
take over. Irving is a novelist in the grand 19th-century manner whose abundant
gift for storytelling is mixed with an idiosyncratic comic voice, and the
pleasures of his style are carefully preserved here. Even the most peripheral
characters are etched with neat, pictorial strokes, such as the nasty stationmaster
who "never lost his fear of the mail, of what might be coming his way." Observing
the way the author weaves his themes and comic motifs together is a delight
For all its physical exuberance, however, directors Hulce and Jones' staging
cannot erase the wordiness of Parnell's text, which is perhaps loyal to Irving's
novel to a fault. The characters narrate the tale as much as they enact it,
often following a line of dialogue by revealing the character's thoughts
or giving a description of an action. Certainly this is one way of replicating
the novelist's privileged omniscience and allowing for a wealth of incident
not easy to stage --- but it's also inherently undramatic, and, after three
hours, a little deflating. The immediacy that is so central to the appeal
of theater is dissipated when we are constantly made aware that we're watching
events not as they happen but as they happened.
Hamilton is a bright-eyed, comically blank presence as young Homer; it's
probably not the fault of the actor but the text that Homer's sudden revulsion
at the idea of abortion seemsdictated rather than felt. Meaney gives a fine,
subdued performance as the gruff Dr. Larch, who can dissect a heart in an
autopsy with the meticulous attention he cannot bring to examining his own.
As the first part of Irving's tale comes to its conclusion, Homer and Dr.
Larch are increasingly at odds, and there's the tantalizing feeling that
the rift between them may in part two provide the springboard for a more
searching emotional journey than part one has supplied. But one is nevertheless
left with the nagging thought that the staging, potent and fluid as it is,
does not dramatically enrich the material --- the novel has been transcribed
for the theater rather than transformed.
Sets, John Arnone; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Adam Silverman; music,
Dan Wheetman; production stage manager, Amy Fritz. Opened May 6, 1999. Reviewed
April 4. Running time: 3 HOURS, 10 MIN.