'Bible' playwright's goal: Less afraid, more joyous

Some reviewers puzzle over how a priest can be a playwright, and one who has a way with profanity. But Bill Cain is both a Jesuit priest and a playwright whose latest work is nearing the end of a run at Seattle Rep.

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Rev. Bill Cain, S.J., wrote "How to Write a New Book for the Bible." He has twice won the American Theater Critics’ Association/Steinberg Award for the best original play in regional theater.

Some reviewers puzzle over how a priest can be a playwright, and one who has a way with profanity. But Bill Cain is both a Jesuit priest and a playwright whose latest work is nearing the end of a run at Seattle Rep.

Playwright Bill Cain spoke of what he hoped those who see his current production at the Seattle Repretory Theater, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, might take away. He hopes playgoers exit the theater “less afraid and more joyous.” Don’t know about you, but I’d say the world could use a bit more of that.

Moreover, that pretty well describes my own experience of this generous play. It faces some of life’s tough stuff: aging, loss, and death and still manages to send you out the door more hopeful and grateful than you went in. Moreover, you may be chuckling over the play’s many really funny moments and lines.

As someone who attended the play because of an interest in theological and spiritual questions, I found this is an impressive exploration of modern life. And for me it was as uplifting as Cain hoped, even if some reviews have found the play wanting in areas.

Cain, a Catholic clergyman, understands that he is swimming against the stream with a loving portrayal of a more or less functional family, which happens to be his own. So much of drama has focused on the horror stories of family, often told from the perspective of aggrieved adult children. Whether it is the Bible’s primal parents, Adam and Eve, ruining things for the rest of us, or James and Mary Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey into Night, or George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe countless narratives relate the tale of family trauma and dysfunction.

"Most of drama," Cain told me, "is pointing the finger backwards. [But] there’s drama in generosity as well. I don’t think the only drama is in the scarring and the losses. I think there’s great drama in self-sacrifice and kindness and the cost of kindness."

Such a focus risks, of course, being dismissed as sentimental and consignment to the Hallmark Channel.

While I found New Book for the Bible touching, it is not sentimental, and certainly never maudlin. It is honest and real, but not harsh. It is deeply insightful about the relationships between parents and children, relationships that are simultaneously, and often bewilderingly, both terribly close and oddly distant. It causes the viewer to nod in recognition and in that experience of recognition to feel both known and understood, despite one’s foibles.

The story is based on Cain’s own family and particularly his experience of moving in with his fiercely independent mother, Mary, after she had been told she has six months to live. As such, the play will speak especially to those who have had or may be in the midst of caring for elderly parents, and know the mysterious ambivalances that mark such relationships and chapters of life.

Sometimes its all a little maddening, as when Mary pulls herself together for the guy who is supposed to deliver a fancy four-footed cane. Suddenly at his knock, she is full of vim and vigor, convincing the visitor she really has no need of such help. But as soon as the door is closed Mary reverts to being painfully bent over and nearly unable to walk. And both are true. She’s in pain and needs help. And she is brave and proud and denies that she needs any help at all, thanks very much.  

But Cain’s drama isn’t limited to end-of-life matters. From that fulcrum Cain ranges over the larger story of his family and of the marriage of his parents, Pete and Mary Cain, whose ordinary lives help us to notice and pay attention to what’s extraordinary in the ordinary.

There’s Bill as a little boy dropping, and shattering, his birthday pumpkin, which his father patiently knits back together with toothpicks. There’s a visit to the Vietnam memorial with his brother, Paul, a Vietnam vet. At the Wall, Paul insists he can’t be there and they must leave right now. But then, sometime after midnight, Paul wakes Bill, insisting they return to the Wall because he just has to.

Cain is a Jesuit priest whose vocation has led him to teach middle school in the Bronx as well as write for the stage and television, both venues where he has won prestigious awards. Some reviewers have puzzled about how his priestly vocation fits into all this, and into the story that is told in the play. Superficially, I suppose, you can understand such questions. Cain’s character is seldom in priestly garb, is never seen praying a rosary, and his dialogue is spiked with profanity. If you think of priests only in terms of stereotypes, he doesn’t fit.

But there are two ways in which his vocation figures into the play. One is a characteristic gesture made by his character. The gesture is one of uplifted hands. Sometimes the hands are lifted in blessing, but more often they seem to reaching to connect two worlds. And as a matter of fact that is a classic description of the work and role of the priest. A priest is a mediating figure, who stands between. A priest represents God to people but then turns around and represents people to God.

But at a deeper level what Cain wants us to see is the intense sacredness of ordinary life as well as the significance of the lives of ordinary people, of their living and their dying.

This is at the idea of the play’s title, How to Write a New Book for the Bible. Cain doesn’t believe that God’s revelation ended with the Bible’s last book, Revelation (which he refers to at one point as “bad science fiction”). Cain believes that God continues to speak, to reveal, to communicate and that one of the places that God does this most reliably is in the crucible and stories of family.

I suspect that many people may think that their family is the very last place they’d look for the holy or the sacred or the redemptive. For many, family seems to be something to get away from and leave behind as quickly as possible. But Cain’s story invites us to take another look and perhaps to find grace and revelation in what’s right under our noses.

While Cain is a Jesuit, he seems to have taken a leaf from the book of the Benedictine Order which counsels, “Do not seek the extraordinary; rather, baptize the ordinary.”

If you go: How to Write a New Book for the Bible runs through Feb. 5 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. $15-$64. For more information, visit www.seattlerep.org.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.