The Cider House Rules:
Daring Theater, Brave Choices

By Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #971, August 30, 1998

To me, theater is all about storytelling. It's sitting around a fire telling each other stories that help and inspire us as we make our way through the present to the future. These are stories of the best and the worst of humanity. In this society, it is a rare moment in theater when the interests of the people burst through. But sometimes when the fire is stoked the people's stories are brightly lit on center stage, with all of our suffering, our happiness, our romance, our heroism.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to see the play The Cider House Rules at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. I knew something about John Irving's 1985 novel, which the play is adapted from, so I knew the play was sure to be controversial. And from the very start, from the previews on, it's been clear this play is a step out of the ordinary Los Angeles theater season. When I arrived at the theater to purchase my tickets I was told that "a generous benefactor" had been so moved by the play that they had paid for all of the tickets for that performance.

The Cider House Rules is a tale about women in need of abortions and those committed to giving women a choice. It tells of the oppression of women and those who fight against it. Today in this country, abortion providers are being murdered or put on trial for murder. In The Cider House Rules they are heroes. This is a play that belongs to the people--ruthless in its exposure of suffering and proud in its celebration of the best of humanity.

The Cider House Rules is beautifully staged and this was no easy accomplishment. In development and workshops for two years, it was produced at the Seattle Repertory Theater in 1996 before it opened this summer in Los Angeles. Adapting a book as huge and complicated as Irving's novel for the stage was an immense undertaking. The story spans many decades (from the 1880s through the 1950s) and takes place in rural Maine. It introduces us to Dr. Wilbur Larch (played by Michael Winters)--an obstetrician and gynecologist who, through some first-hand experience with the horrors of illegal and botched abortions, decides to provide women with safe abortions, away from the eyes and laws of the state.

One particularly powerful scene occurs after a young woman dies from an illegal, botched abortion. A young Dr. Larch had refused to give her an abortion and when he learns of her death he goes to where the young woman got the back-alley abortion. The women in this scene, including the woman providing illegal abortions, sharply challenge Dr. Larch by revealing a cruel statistic--they tell him that one-third of the women/girls who come to them for abortions are the victims of incest, rape and child abuse. The women demand that Dr. Larch "Shit or get off the pot!", that he teach them how to provide safe abortions or start to do them himself.

Dr. Larch is haunted by the ghosts of the women he has seen die from back-alley abortions. He becomes addicted to ether to ease his own pain. And more importantly, he boldly decides to break the law and provide free abortions to any and all women who need one.

At the same time, Dr. Larch is the head of St. Cloud's orphanage. He delivers and cares for babies which women have decided they can't keep: "He [Larch] was an obstetrician. He delivered babies into the world. His colleagues called this `the Lord's work.' And he was an abortionist; he delivered mothers, too. His colleagues called this `the Devil's work,' but it was all the Lord's work to Wilbur Larch...He would deliver babies. He would deliver mothers, too."

Homer Wells (played by Josh Hamilton) is an orphan who grows up in the St. Cloud's orphanage. He becomes both a son to Dr. Larch and a highly skilled, though not formally trained and never licensed, obstetrician who can deliver babies and perform abortions. Dr. Larch diligently trains Homer, passing on his medical skills as well as his outlook on the work. He tells Homer he must be "of some use." But midway through the play Homer detects a "smile" on the face of an aborted fetus and this throws his whole life into an uproar. When Homer refuses to do any more abortions, Dr. Larch tells him, "You may disapprove, but you may not be ignorant or look away."

In the second part of the play, Dr. Larch encourages Homer to leave the orphanage, knowing Homer must experience the real world in order to make a decision about what he should do with his life. Homer goes to live and work on an apple farm where the work rules--which give the play its title--are often broken. Here we follow the complexities of many more interesting characters, from a young couple who come to St. Cloud's to get an abortion to the Black migrant workers who share their own hopes and dreams, sitting on the cider house roof.

When Homer leaves the orphanage, he is torn between his love for Dr. Larch and his feeling that the doctor is "breaking the rules." But out in the world, Homer learns a lot more about "rules"--who makes them and who breaks them. And he is faced with a challenge. Back at the orphanage Homer had read his favorite novel--David Copperfield by Charles Dickens--to the children every night. Homer had recited the opening sentences of the story many times to the orphans: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." These lines serve as a life test for Homer--and also keep the audience engrossed as they wait to find out the answer.

The cast of 22 actors portray 120 roles--including a few animals and inanimate objects--in 150 scenes. This is a highly ambitious undertaking. But co-directors Tom Hulce (who is also an actor) and Jane Jones worked in an intense collective effort with playwright Peter Parnell and came out of the process with a very moving and powerful piece of art. The play is performed in two, three-hour parts--people see it on two different nights or attend a marathon performance on Saturday or Sunday.

A remarkable testament to the power of the play is that the audience has no difficulty following the characters or the plot despite its complexity and the time gap between performances. In fact, when the cast runs to the stage to recap the plot at the opening of the second part of the play they have been consistently greeted with loud applause and cheers.

Hulce, Jones and Parnell first came up with the idea of putting The Cider House Rules on stage six years ago. And they have said, "We strongly believe in Irving's concern for the well being of every child born into this world and in a woman's choice to decide whether or not she can provide this act of service."

When Tom Hulce first approached the novel's author, John Irving, with the idea, Irving said, "I'd always been very sympathetic to his (Hulce's) talent. But I must say, I thought he was nuts. It seemed to me to be a singularly difficult thing to do at the length he was describing and yet I had so much confidence in his instincts in a world that I'm very inexperienced in, that I said, `Sure, go ahead and show me what you can get.'" Later, Irving saw the play in Seattle and said, "I was just bowled over by it. I just loved it."

The directors and playwright wanted to present the play in a way that was as true as possible to John Irving's narrative voice. To do this, they have used an exceptionally innovative technique--one in which the characters voice their own thoughts and speak in the voice of a narrator before they step into the scene as the character and even occasionally stepping back outside the scene to voice their thoughts or deepen a point made in the narration. Through this both the characters and the plot develop in a way that would be next to impossible in standard theater given the size and complexity of the cast and the play.

Everything is done to focus the audience's attention on the characters and the story itself. The set, a series of wooden panels and catwalks both conjures rural New England and helps to focus things on the actors. All of the special effects and sound effects are carried out by the actors either on stage or just off stage. And most of all, the actors themselves have brought an amazing level of energy and enthusiasm for the play onto the stage with them.

Co-director Jane Jones said, "It's all about activating the narrative to then use it. It's so hard for the actors to do, but once they get it, it's no more difficult than Shakespeare, really, in a way, because it's language-driven. And you have to play a very strong objective through the language, through the narration, so that it not only transports you in time and place, but transforms you through psychic behavior. It allowed you to creep into the mind of a character and therefore retrain and preserve the author's full intention of what's going on, not only physically, but mentally with the character, as well."

His belief in a woman's right to choose was a big part of what propelled Hulce to put his acting career on hold for the last two years and moved Jones and Parnell to devote so much of their lives to the play. "The women's issues have been highly motivating and challenging, " Ms. Jones said. "And how beautifully both characters can argue for the right to choice continues to be moving to me." Members of the cast have also brought their commitment to the theme of the play on stage with them. One woman, Casey Lluberes, who plays the daughter of a Black migrant worker, dedicated her performances in the show to her father and "to all the physicians who make it possible to have a choice."

The future of The Cider House Rules play is still somewhat uncertain. The American Theater Critics Association recently named it as the outstanding regional theater play of the season. And every audience that sees it responds with tears, laughter and standing ovations. But a few key critics have wielded their cultural butcher knives to label the play artistically flat and leaden. None of this is surprising, and the critical hatchet job has also generated some pointed response from people who love the play.

The L.A. production of The Cider House Rules is scheduled to run until the end of September. There is talk of then taking it on the road to regional theaters, and the producers want to take it to Broadway. Meanwhile, John Irving is working on a screenplay for a movie of The Cider House Rules."

Today abortion rights are under intense attack, more than half the doctors who do abortions are nearing retirement age and many younger doctors are not even taught how to do them. For this reason, Irving says he finds his story "more topical now than when the book was published." He says, "When it was published, people said, 'Oh, it's kind of quaint, that issue's behind us.' The crisis of abortion rights laid pretty low, and people were, wrongly, I think, taking for granted a right that had barely been in existence for 10 years. And especially younger people, who had no experience in their sexually conscious lives of a time when it wasn't available, were comfortable taking for granted that if they needed it, it would be there. That right has to be protected again and again."

The Cider House Rules is a must see (and must read) for everyone who cares about humanity and the fight against the oppression of women. This play is a moving, tremendous work of art--one of the precious moments when a story in the interests of the people has taken over the stage. Works like The Cider House Rules need our support. In return, everyone who gets a chance to see the play is guaranteed an amazing ride.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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