Making a Novel Choice

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."

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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.)

The trio met up again three years later, when the same piece was filmed for PBS' "American Playhouse." Yet it wasn't until a few years later that Hulce and Jones connected in earnest. "Jane was in a production at the Roundabout, and I was walking by and I saw that she was in it," says Hulce, who is perhaps still best-known for playing Mozart in the 1984 film "Amadeus."

Not long after that, in 1987, Jones relocated from New York to Seattle. There she founded Book-It Repertory theater, a company dedicated to presenting works of literature onstage in "unadapted, word-for-word form . . . through preservation of the author's narrative voice," as she explains. "We developed a process and a technique of making the narrative become dialogue, which you'll see in 'Cider House.' "

Shortly after Jones moved to Seattle, Hulce, who lives in Los Angeles, bought a house there. "It became obvious that Tom wasn't going to full-time move there," says Jones. "So I moved in and set up a kind of boarding house [for visiting artists]."

The Hulce-Jones friendship continued professionally as well. During these years, Jones would sometimes accompany Hulce on movie shoots, working with him while on location. "I guess you could call it coaching," she says.

Then, in 1990, Hulce went to what turned out to be a fateful casting meeting. "I had a meeting with a director, who has since died, who was going to direct the film of 'The Cider House Rules,' " he says. "I think I talked nonstop for about two hours.

"The floodgates opened," Hulce continues. "I was just all over it--including explaining to him why he shouldn't hire me--because of the way the part of Homer Wells worked in the screenplay, and who might be better to serve the story."

Two years later, in 1992, Hulce set "The Cider House Rules" stage project in motion. He asked Jones and Parnell--and soon after that, set designer John Arnone--to read the book. "I was definitely at that point where I wanted to give energy toward work as a whole, and not just with the actor's responsibility," says Hulce.

In the summer of 1993, Hulce, Jones and Parnell convened at the Seattle house to begin work on the actual script. "At that point, John Irving gave us basically unlimited speculative permission, which meant that we could do as much work and spend as much time and as much money as we wanted to, as long as no one could see what we did," says Hulce. "He would allow us to enter into the process. But there was absolutely no guarantee."

The trio began by setting up some basic creative parameters. "We decided pretty early that we would keep the point of view of the book and tell the story as close to the way the story is told in the novel as we could," says Parnell, who lives in New York. "I had seen a bit of Jane's company's work, and I had a sense of what that meant."

Next, Hulce and Jones began reading the text aloud, hoping to inspire Parnell. "We just kept on talking and talking, trying to find the moment when Peter would go and put his fingers onto the keyboard," recalls Hulce. "We had been there a month, and somehow he wasn't writing."

In fact, things were looking grim for a while. "There was a point where I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to do this,' " says Parnell, who had written a number of plays before, but had never ventured a stage adaptation. "Where to begin the actual forward momentum of the story was something that I needed to find," Parnell continues. "It has to do with a combination of visual image and metaphor, combined with action, that will get me, or get the character, on the road to wanting or discovering something."

Parnell at one point beat a retreat. "I went upstairs, and over the next four or five days worked very hard basically on one section of the book."

"Finally he invited us in and read aloud to us what is now the major portion of our second act," Hulce remembers.

"The world of the orphanage and of Homer learning what that is and starting to grow up in it was most appealing to me when I first read it," says Parnell, "so it made sense that that was where I would begin. Wherever the story would take Homer, this world had to be established, so it was a good place to begin."

And though the play has been through countless revisions since that first summer, Parnell and the co-directors have remained true to their primary mandate of fidelity to Irving's narrative. "There are adaptations that tell the story in a different way, or break the form, or try to explain things from one character's point of view or use the book to talk about certain issues," says Parnell. "This isn't trying to do that as much as to actually tell the story in as theatrical and compelling a way, and as simply, as possible."

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By September 1993, Hulce, Jones and Parnell staged the first workshop version of "The Cider House Rules" at the Juilliard School in New York. It was there, in fact, that then-Seattle Rep artistic director Daniel Sullivan got wind of the project and invited the creators to continue their work at his theater.

First, however, the collaborators had to get permission from Irving to continue their efforts. "We sent him the text we had worked on at Juilliard, and he sent back a four-page single-spaced letter basically outlining why he didn't like the theater, and his great ambivalence about having his novel dramatized," says Hulce. "But he did give the one thing that I'd been trying to get, which was that he agreed to meet with me face to face."

That meeting didn't take place until spring of 1995, in Los Angeles, for which Hulce prepared supporting materials to help make his case. "I collected every bit of ammunition I could find. . . videos. . .books from the 1880s, photographs," says Hulce. "I literally showed up with two shopping bags."

But Hulce never really got to make his pitch. "Basically, after the briefest kind of social politeness, [Irving] just turned and said, 'So, are you just going to keep bugging me about this?' " the actor recalls. "And I said, 'Well, yes, I think I am.' And so he said, 'Oh, well then we better work something out.' "

From that point on, the Hulce-Jones-Parnell team had the author's tacit blessing, if only for one step at a time. "That was the beginning of these incremental periods," says Hulce. "Each step we were able to get permission only for each step as it came, so we never knew that we would have the ability to go on.

"Basically, over about a 2 1/2-year period, we worked on the play at the Seattle Rep and in readings in various places," Hulce continues. "In Seattle [in '96], we did a production of Part 1, then work-shopped Part 2 at the tail end of that. Then the following winter, we premiered Part 2 and did an unbelievably quick remount of Part 1 to go with it."

Irving finally caught up with the show, albeit only Part 2, at one of its final Seattle performances last season: "I was only pleasantly surprised," recalls the novelist.

At the Taper, "Cider House" has continued its development during four weeks of preview performances--unusually long for the Taper, which generally has previews for a week and a half.

"The work is very much ongoing here," says Hulce. And what the future holds remains unknown. The show could receive another regional staging or even go to Broadway, although no plans for either of those are yet underway. For the moment, the collaborators are just keeping their eyes focused on the task at hand.

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"The Cider House Rules," Mark Taper Forum, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Opens July 11. Regular schedule (Parts 1 and 2 are paired for purchase together): Tuesday and Thursdays or Wednesdays and Fridays, 8 p.m. Marathon performances Saturdays and Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. (a 2 1/2-hour break between parts). Ends Sept. 27. $58-$80. (213) 628-2772.

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