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Jane Jones makes The Cider House Rules

Homer Wells (Connor Toms, left) and Dr. Larch (Peter Crook) in Book-It's current production.
Homer Wells (Connor Toms, left)
and Dr. Larch (Peter Crook)
Photo: Adam Smith, courtesy Book-It

Book-It wraps their 20th season this month with The Cider House Rules, the first full-length novel ever adapted by the company. Founding co-artistic director Jane Jones returns to the director’s chair for Part One: Here in St. Clouds. She, actor Tom Hulce (who co-directed the world premiere), and playwright Peter Parnell first crafted a Wagnerian version of John Irving’s novel.

“The first version [1995] was five-and-half hours long. Then we whittled it down to four hours, that was the version that we did for the opening of the Leo K Theatre [1997],” recalled Jones. This weekend, this latest incarnation will be approximately three hours, in part due to advice from novelist himself.

“Irving told us to be ruthless with cuts,” Jones said. The novelist had been persuaded by his son to see the performances at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. “Irving saw Part II before he saw Part I. I sat a friend next him and told her to come out during intermission and tell us how it was going. She did and whispered, ‘I think he likes it.’ At the end, she said ‘oh, he was completely overcome.’ He was incredibly enthusiastic and later gave us permission to adapt A Prayer for Owen Meany [which became Book-It’s Owen Meany’s Christmas Pageant].”

This adaptation also made Book-It a visible player in the Seattle’s theater scene. The ambitious and critically successful adaptation attracted new patrons, new board members, and a respect that helped the tiny company evolve.

“Today we have seventeen people on the payroll with insurance!” said Jones, shaking her head over the two decades of changes that she has seen at Book-It. But going back to the old triumph wasn’t an easy sell for her. “At first, I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “I was done with The Cider House Rules. But then we decided to present it in the round.”

With seats surrounding the actors on all sides, changes needed to be made. Jones even got to reshape a few moments that always left her unsatisfied in early versions. “The new format keeps everyone dancing, and it keeps opening the story up,” she said. “Besides, this is such a terrific story, and it seems like every decade we should give somebody new a chance to play Dr. Larch, to play Homer Wells.”

What hasn’t changed is the post-play discussions sparked by Dr. Larch’s decision to provide abortions and Homer’s moral opposition to his adopted father’s practice. “Abortion is always going to be an issue,” said Jones. “Irving once said that he never set out to write a novel about abortion. He wanted to write a Dickensian story about orphans…but he couldn’t avoid it.”

But, in the end, Jones has found The Cider House Rules to be a story about parenting: “it is about love and trust, about making choices, about what lives we decide to lead.”