Book-It continues to perfect its staging of John Irving's story in "The Cider House Rules, Part 1: Here in St. Cloud's."
Welcome home, you princes of Maine! You kings of New England!
These princes and kings, as Dr. Wilbur Larch calls them in the engrossing John Irving novel and Peter Parnell play,”The Cider House Rules,” are parentless children in mythical St. Cloud’s, Maine, in the 1930s.
They dwell under Larch’s care in a facility that’s both obstetrics hospital and orphanage — and, covertly, a clinic where desperate women may obtain safe, free abortions.
How Larch became an abortionist, how he became a surrogate father to his charge Homer Wells, what Homer found when he left St. Cloud’s to seek himself — these are major narrative threads in Irving’s vibrant, meaningful Dickensian tome, and Book-It Repertory Theatre’s hearty, crisply realized revival of Parnell’s play.
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It is restaged here by Book-It honcho Jane Jones, who with Tom Hulce mounted the acclaimed debut of the two-part “Cider House” at Seattle Repertory Theatre back in 1995.
Back then, “Cider House” was a revelation — a vivid epic, steeped in the grand Victorian novel tradition of colorful yarn laced with social concern.
Book-It has continued to perfect this mode, so “Cider House Rules” is no longer a rarity. But it is still special, both in its bulk (Part 2 runs in the fall) and in its charm, moral reach and compelling “heroes” — honorable, complex Larch (Peter Crook) and sensitive, questing Homer (Connor Toms).
Swift-paced and cogent, Part 1 of “Cider House” tickles you one moment with the boisterous antics of Larch’s “orphans,” and the comic exasperation of his devoted staff (Julie Jamieson, Melinda Deane and Laura Kenny).
And in the next instant, it gives you an unsparing view of young women in the late 19th century dying in agony due to botched abortions — to the young Larch’s lasting guilt and horror.
“The Cider House Rules” is clearly an abortion rights story, but it is not a tract. Moreover, it compassionately shows how differing views on abortion evolve through experience, not orthodoxy.
Nor does it spare the medical details, or the ambivalence on both sides.
Homer is schooled by Larch in the procedure. But for sex education, his teacher is wild Melony (fervent Terri Weagant), an angry fellow “orphan.”
At heart this is an ensemble piece. A delicate flurry of snow, the whistle of a train, a fateful swim on a rushing river — all are evoked by energetic actors, with deft assists from Dan Wheetman’s folksy music and Andrew D. Smith’s top-notch lighting.
One glitch: In early scenes, there’s too much shouting and shrieking that’s unnecessary, given the acoustics, and at times painful.
Crook knows better. His quietly potent Larch reveals torment, intelligence and love for the boy he reluctantly fathers with a slight change of expression, a simple gesture, a shift of tone.
Toms, in one of his best performances, is also subtly affecting as (to quote the oft-referenced Dickens) the hero of his own story.
You can sense this Homer maturing in front of you, from quizzical child to confused adolescent, to restless young man. And his saga, at the close of Part 1, is only just beginning.