Part Two of "The Cider House Rules," now being staged at Book-It Repertory Theatre, is even better than the excellent first half, boasting deepened portrayals by the large, agile cast and the full bloom of Irving's compassionate, multigenerational tale.

Share story

Like a great novel, theater at its most magical immerses you in an alternate reality. Near-total immersion is rare — but it’s possible, watching Book-It Repertory Theatre’s enchanting “The Cider House Rules.”

Last spring, Book-It staged a satisfying revival of Part One of “Cider House Rules,” Peter Parnell’s epic adaptation of John Irving’s Dickensian novel.

Spanning more than a half-century, and centered on the life of a Maine orphanage doctor and an orphan he raises as a son, the show debuted at Seattle Repertory Theatre in the 1990s. The director of the current run at Center House Theatre is Book-It’s Jane Jones, who co-conceived the play and codirected at the Rep.

And happy day: Part Two of the six-hour-plus saga at Center House is even better than the first half. It boasts deepened portrayals by the large, agile cast, and the full bloom of Irving’s compassionate, funny/sad, multigenerational tale of love and death, moral courage and ethical complexity.

Part One of “Cider House” will be repeated on selected dates, and several marathon performances of the entire opus are slated.

But if need be, Part Two can stand on its own. It is Book-It at its best.

Parnell’s wittily condensed preface fills us in on earlier events: why crusty obstetrician Wilbur Larch (Peter Crook), due to a trauma in his youth, secretly provides safe, illegal abortions as well as delivers babies; the childhood of Homer Wells (Connor Toms), a bright, lovable orphan Larch keeps as his own; and Homer’s relationships with angry, soul-battered fellow orphan Melony (Terri Weagant), and the attractive young couple, Candy (Emily Grogan) and Wally (Richard Nguyen Sloniker), who whisk him away to spread his wings beyond the hamlet of St. Cloud’s.

As Part Two opens, the aged Dr. Larch is missing his beloved Homer, whom he trained as an (amateur) obstetrician. And he plots Homer’s return as his successor.

Meanwhile, Homer travels no farther than an apple farm elsewhere in Maine. But the emotional and geographic distance draw him out of his cocoon and into a more complicated adulthood.

In the wider world, shadowed by poverty and war, Homer encounters black migrant workers who make their own rules in opposition to white bosses. He falls in love under a veil of deception. And he sees himself through the disappointed eyes of Melony, who fervently hunts him down.

“Cider House” illustrates how people create their own moral guidelines, for good and ill. And in its abortion-rights argument, it does not malign those with sincere misgivings about the procedure.

There’s nothing like a gripping plot, vivid prose, surefire humor and intriguing characters, and “Cider House” has them all. But the play, as opposed to the overly slick movie based on the novel, gives the added pleasure of theatrical transformation, as it unfurls on a nearly bare stage (enhanced here by Andrew D. Smith’s excellent lighting, and the music of Eric Chappelle’s folksy combo).

The actor’s art is especially edifying. Crook’s Larch credibly ages to his 90s, and movingly confronts mortality with bitterness and hope. Toms, whose Homer dominates Part Two, is simply terrific as he authentically lives through each rite of passage.

Weagant’s ferocious Melony is tempered with potent vulnerability. Samara Lerman as her lover and Allison Strickland as an abused migrant girl also stand out.

However, “Cider House” is an ensemble piece; it takes a village to evoke St. Cloud’s and environs. Under Jones’ assured and fluid direction, that’s exactly what this entire cast does. Bravo to them all.

Misha Berson: