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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 27, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 04
New Book for the Bible performance solid, but script needs help
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New Book for the Bible performance solid, but script needs help

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

How to Write a New Book for the Bible
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through February 5


Bill Cain is a marvelously adept playwright, and his play Equivocation (2009) was provocative and full of ideas and challenges. Equivocation examines what someone goes through who has to decide between the proverbial rock and hard place and uses Shakespeare as a historical figure who has to decide what to write when given a royal commission. Is it art if you're writing what someone else tells you to?

His new play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, is absolutely different. It is a very personal and autobiographical exploration of his feelings and thoughts during the deterioration and death of his mother some years ago. In a crisp presentation at the Seattle Rep, this import from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre delivers a lot, but misses on some fundamentals.

The staging (as directed by Kent Nicholson) is clean and inventive, with a slightly raked bare wooden floor stage and clearly visible scenery that is flown in from slightly above the stage. A multipurpose chest becomes a table, bench, medicine cabinet, and storage unit for props.

Four actors portray Bill Cain's family. Tyler Pierce plays Bill, mother Mary is Linda Gehringer, older brother Paul and others is Aaron Blakely, and Leo Marks plays father Pete and others. Each of these individuals is clearly a talented and accomplished actor. They are all new to the Seattle stage.

Bill starts off explaining that he's a writer, so no one thinks he has a job, which is why he's the one who has to move in with his mother as her health fails. But soon, he clarifies that he is also a Jesuit priest. (For the purposes of the play, this is more key than the fact that he's a writer.)

He wants to write a new book for the Bible and suggests that every family write a new one every 100 years, for what is a book of the Bible if not a family history? However, it's not even clear what would be in the new book. The example on stage runs sort of like, 'And the son returned home to greet the mother who had raised him and found her greatly changed,' a sort of biblical/modern-language hybrid that sheds zero light on the subject.

However, this priest doesn't act like any priest you might be acquainted with, since he swears, and doesn't even refer to useful biblical passages. In fact, he uses a diary he kept during the months of his mother's decline in place of a Bible. He obliquely refers to some priestly duties, officiating over his father's death, for instance, yet in a moment of tortured inner unrest, wrestles with whether God pays attention to him. Wouldn't a priest have learned how to counsel those who wrestle with their faith enough to counsel himself in the same regard? It's a puzzlement.

Gehringer has a difficult role that bounces somewhat erratically from being the 82-year-old fragile mother to a vigorous younger woman who flirts with her husband and raises her young children. Her brusque delivery helps keep the play from getting too maudlin, and when she knows her son is writing a play about her, her main concern is that he doesn't write her in such a way that she becomes foolish. Mary Cain doesn't ever seem foolish, so that part is a success.

Cain claims that he's writing about something he rarely sees: a functional family. He says this because the Cain family apparently had some very successful rules for arguing, and that does go a long way toward keeping things going, but this stage portrayal reveals regular family dysfunctions anyway.

Ultimately, he is telling a story about his end-stage journey with his mother, whom he both adored and had conflicts with. He tells us what we're going to see at the beginning, and then makes us watch way too many moments of it, almost wallowing in the process rather than mining it for helpful jewels of discovery. The play is really desperately in need of a dramaturge or someone who will ask Bill what he really wants to say on stage, and then make sure every moment drives toward that.

This is an example of a solid production of a flawed script, with great actors and technical surroundings telling a story that needs to find out where it's supposed to go.

For more information, go to www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.

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