Call me crazy, but I can think of very little that I’d rather do on a rainy Saturday in November than sit through six hours of extraordinary theater.
Last weekend, UNC School of the Arts rolled out “The Cider House Rules” in two parts in Performance Place. I saw Part 1 at 2 p.m., went to dinner at my old favorite Chinese restaurant, Sampan, over on Peter’s Creek Parkway, scooted over to Cloverdale for a double espresso, then back to UNCSA for Part 2 at 7:30 p.m.
All the while, it rained.
“Cider House Rules” marks the first time that grown-up story theater has been presented locally. (I make the “grown-up” distinction, because there’s also a genre of story theater that comprises adaptations of folk- and fairy-tales.)
“Cider House” is one of the few examples of this genre currently in existence, but with the rise of binge TV, why not binge theater? Others include “Nicolas Nickleby” (1982, 8.5 hours), “The Inheritance” (currently on Broadway, 6.5 hours) and “Angels in America” (2018, about eight hours). Parts 1 and 2 of “Angels” were produced earlier, separately.
What distinguishes story theater, besides it’s epic length, is that the actors typically speak in both third-person and first-person voices: They both narrate and speak as themselves. The set and props are minimal, and pantomiming is used. In the hands of a less-skilled cast and crew, this could be clunky.
In this case, it was anything but awkward. In fact, it was riveting. The casting was terrific, and Quin Gordon must be applauded for his innovative and inventive directing, as well as the young actors for their full commitment and engaging performances.
After living with a cast for more than six hours, you feel you know them, even though the 17 of them play more than 60 roles.
“Cider House Rules” was adapted for the stage by Peter Parnell in 1998 from the novel (1985) by John Irving. It spans nearly 80 years, telling the bittersweet story of Dr. Wilbur Larch, a caregiver at an orphanage in Maine; Homer Wells, a perpetual orphan; and many other folks, including orphans, nurses, dock workers and apple growers.
Larch, portrayed brilliantly by Graham Baker, is a flawed human being (he’s addicted to ether) who does “God’s work.” He delivers babies that women want to bring to term but don’t want to keep and also performs illegal abortions. (The show begins nearly 100 years before Roe v. Wade.) Larch doesn’t judge. He just does as they ask.
Homer, played equally well by Daniel Keenan, is compassionate and precocious. His attempts at being adopted end badly, and Larch teaches him obstetrics in the hopes that Homer will eventually replace him in the orphanage hospital.
All the performers are laudable, but a head-and-shoulders standout is Paige Okey in the role of Melony, an angry, violent, aggressive girl who expects great things of Homer. Okey is an agile and explosive actor who brightens every scene she enters, whether embodying Melony or appearing in the orphan ensemble.
When he appears to have lost Homer to the outside world, Larch begins to concoct a fictional doctor based on a dead orphan to become his ultimate replacement. Despite the many intricacies of plotting, what is happening is always clear thanks to the combination of narration and dialogue.
What’s great about the show is its ability to just pull you in and hold you for six hours; its content, which shows what happens when abortion is illegal: no one likes abortions or wants to have or perform them, but as long as there are rape, incest, seduction, coercion and foolishness, they will be necessary and, necessarily, in the hands of women.
What’s also great is the ability of the actors to make something out of very little: worlds and lifetimes against a few bare boards — with great lighting and sound effects. Hudson Waldrop, a sound designer in the School of Design and Production, composed music for the production, which is performed live. Juli Reed is the scenic designer, and Ethan Siewitz is the lighting designer.
What’s not so great is that it does get a little preachy and repetitive at times.
If you have not yet availed yourself of all that UNCSA offers the public, then you are truly missing out on one of the very best things about living in Winston-Salem: a world-class arts conservatory right on the south edge of town.
Every week, there are film screenings, and theater, dance and music performances, all at affordable prices. To see what’s coming up in December — “The Gypsy Soul,” “The Nutcracker,” “Trios Divine,” to name a few — visit www.uncsa.edu or stay tuned to Sunday Arts.