John Irving's novel "The Cider House Rules" was converted into a two-part stage epic in Seattle in 1997. The Mark Taper Forum presented a somewhat trimmed but still double-barreled version a year later. Yet after the material was transformed into a well-received, standard-length movie in 1999, the chances of again seeing Peter Parnell's ambitious stage adaptation -- which runs nearly six hours -- seemed slim.
Joanne Gordon, however, thought "Cider" would create a splash as the inaugural production of her tenure as the second artistic director of California Repertory Company. She was right.
As directed by Gordon at the Edison Theatre in downtown Long Beach, "Cider House" is eminently stageworthy, even more so than at the much larger Taper.
At the Edison Theatre, no one is more than four rows away from the action, and Gordon makes sure the action is sufficiently engrossing for nearly all of the show's length.
Actors share the narration and move fluidly between the first and third person.
This style evokes the idea that the roots of theater stem from people who take turns telling stories in a circle of light.
Danila Korogodsky's set enhances this impression by creating circles on the otherwise rectangular thrust stage.
A wooden turntable on the floor and a cylindrical apple bin overhead leak light in arresting patterns designed by Nick Soyom (Part 1) and Seung-il Shin (Part 2).
By now, the material is probably familiar to many, which may make the sprawling story a little easier to follow.
It's the tale of New England orphan Homer Wells (Gavin Hawk) and his mentor and father figure Dr. Wilbur Larch (Richard Holden). At his St. Cloud's orphanage, Larch gives pregnant women who don't want to raise their offspring a choice.
He'll deliver the babies and try to farm them out to foster homes or keep them at the orphanage.
Or he'll provide abortions, which were illegal during the first part of the last century, when most of the story takes place.
Homer grows up as Larch's apprentice, but as he enters adulthood he rebels against both the cloistered atmosphere of the orphanage and Larch's willingness to perform abortions.
He's introduced to the outside world by joining a young couple (Marjo-Riikka Makela and Mark Piatelli) who arrive for an abortion and then employ Homer at their coastal apple orchard.
Many complications ensue, a few of which could use further clarification in the text. But the gist of the story, and Irving's opinionated but hardly simplistic approach to the abortion issue, are crystal clear.
The staging is remarkably precise and the casting excellent, although Makela's accent (her credits are from Russia and Finland) is mildly distracting.
Melancholy live clarinet and cello accompaniment, composed by Justus Matthews, help the story's many strands coalesce.
'The Cider House Rules'
Where: Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach
When: Two parts in repertory. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays
Ends: Dec. 11
Price: $20 per part, $34 for both parts
Contact: (562) 985-5526
Running time: Part 1, 2 hours, 35 minutes; Part 2, 3 hours