One of the most abundant (and some would say redundant) genres in theater is the tearjerker play about a family in crisis. The latest entry, How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain, recently made its world premiere in a co-production by Seattle Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Based on Cain’s experience caring for his dying mother in 1997, How to Write a New Book for the Bible charts the progress of Jesuit priest Bill (Tyler Pierce) as both he and his mother, Mary (Linda Gehringer), come to terms with unresolved family tensions in her final months of life. The Cain family has become fragmented over the years, Bill living in New York, older brother Paul (Aaron Blakely) off teaching high school in Texas, and the affable pater familias, Pete (Leo Marks), having gone home to Jesus some years earlier.
Cain allows the chronology of the piece to bounce around like a ball, landing in his childhood for a moment, then launching ahead to touch down in Mary’s bumbling doctor’s office, only to spring backward to Paul’s tour of duty in Vietnam. His cast is similarly lost in time, with Paul perpetually in his military 20s, Pete at the height of his fatherly powers in his 40s, and Mary an elderly 82. Bill’s own age is harder to put a finger on, but this issue is minor compared with the riddle of his vocation.
Though he anguishes throughout the play about his not-quite-legitimate career as a writer and obsessively works on a screenplay, he informs the audience, ever so casually, that he’s also a priest. Not a defrocked priest or a former seminary student with delusions of holiness — a genuine Jesuit priest.
The peculiarity of this detail in the character’s biography cannot be overstated. Other than his perfunctory officiation at his dad’s and mom’s funerals, nothing about Bill’s behavior or personality indicates at any point that he’s under holy orders. He lives with his mother, he swears, he wheels and deals with a movie producer, he reads his diary instead of his Bible. Even his mother and brother characterize him not as a priest, but as a writer.
When we meet Mary, she is a frail figure who dodders around the house greeting the photographs of friends and family.Gehringer’s portrayal of Mary see-saws between cartoonish goofiness in her dotage and shrill harridan in scenes from Bill’s childhood. In both incarnations, she is hard on the ears and evokes pathos rarely, if ever.
Mary is a woman who had to help support her family from the age of 6, going to work the day she graduated from high school and never stopping until a doctor told her that it was keeping her from getting pregnant after several years of marriage. She is described as devoid of imagination, yet she has unshakable faith that her sons can do anything they set out to do, no matter how unrealistic it might be.
Gehringer mines very little of this gold, consistently attacking scenes with stridency and a bouncy gait that belies a woman in so much pain that she has to be doped up on morphine just to make it from one hour to the next.
Though described by Bill as a “functional family,” the Cains are desperately in need of reconciliation. Scenic Designer Scott Bradley adroitly breaks up the set to reflect the Cain family’s fragmentation. Dripping from the flies are shards of a broken mirror, glittering chandeliers, curtained windows, and glowing lamps. A creamy full moon and the Washington Monument descend to indicate a change in locale, and in one of the more inspired moments of the play, a pumpkin falls from above, shattering on the stage floor to the strains of Carmina Burana.
Throughout the play, Bill tells the audience a great deal about what’s to come, as he (the playwright and character alike) is aware that he is part of a play that both will be written and is currently being performed. In like manner, Mary is conscious at times that she is a character in a work of theater, and that her son has the power to make her appear foolish to the audience. Bill is working from what he considers infallible source material as he constructs the play, a diary that he kept during his mother’s final months. However, he revises the action in previous scenes occasionally, going back to a particular moment to present “what really happened.”
It’s less confusing on stage than it seems in explanation, yet it’s also gimmicky, uneven, and unnecessary. The fact that the time traveling and shifts in the characters’ awareness rarely alienates the audience is a testament to Director Kent Nicholson’s comedic instincts and emotional sensitivity. The text is rife with maudlin moments that Nicholson manages to elevate with humor and authentic humanity.
Eventually, it comes to light that the theatrical text that Bill is creating (and that the audience is watching) is not a play per se, but his contribution to the Bible. “As a writer, the Bible embarrasses me. It begins with bad anthropology and ends with bad science,” he explains. “People keep trying to turn the Bible into a rule book, but it’s not. It’s the story of a family.”
As a writer and as a priest, his job is to point to what is holy so that people will take notice of it. His play/Biblical amendment is about “the ordinary death of an ordinary woman.” It’s also a dead-ringer for a Lifetime made-for-TV movie.
Cain’s 2009 hit, Equivocation, came to Seattle Rep a month after wrapping up its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Berkeley Rep got first crack at How to Write a New Book for the Bible in October. The production opened in Seattle on Jan. 19, after being delayed a day due to snow. Whether How to Write a New Book for the Bible will prove as lucrative for Cain in the award department as his previous plays remains to be seen. Equivocation received a Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Award in 2010, with a second such award bestowed upon Cain in 2011 for his play Nine Circles.
As new plays go, How to Write a New Book for the Bible reads less as an award-winner and more as a flawed but promising work in progress.
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.