By Hilda Scheib, Bay City News Service
"Just don't make me look foolish," urges Bill Cain's proud, stubborn and sharp-as-a-tack mother when her son announces a plan to write about the last six months of her life, which they spend together in the family home in Syracuse.
She had no need to worry. Cain's autobiographical play, "How to Write a New Book for the Bible," currently having its world premiere at the , is a witty, smart and loving portrait of Mary, as well as of her husband Pete and other son Paul, who together comprise what Cain sees as a truly "functional" family.
In the course of his portrayal of life with Mary until her death, Cain unearths a family history of longstanding — but finally resolved — struggles between Mary and Paul, quarrels between Mary and Pete, and issues between the brothers on who should care for their ailing mother.
But all of it takes place under the umbrella of true family affection and plays out against firmly established rules of engagement: Extreme feelings can always be voiced, and nobody walks out on a fight until it's over.
In its own way, the play is, as its title promises, a how-to piece of instructional writing. Cain, for those unfamiliar with his biography from earlier work ("Equivocation" and "9 Circles," both Steinberg New Play Award winners), explains that he is a priest as well as a writer. Taking issue with the Bible (it begins with bad anthropology, he says, and ends with bad science fiction), he rewrites it as the family story he believes it really is.
To the Bill Cain on stage, who presumably is not very different at all from the playwright, the job of the priest is equivalent to that of the writer — to point, to call on others to notice, to direct attention to the detail.
And it is through those details that Cain re-animates his deceased parents and physically distant brother: the power struggle with his mother over who should buy butter, she insisting that, despite cancer-impaired taste buds, she can taste the difference in a preferred brand; the multiple visits with Paul to the Vietnam Memorial; Pete's refusal to believe that his terminal illness is beyond cure.
But Cain's portraits of his parents and brother (and briefly of himself) also have the dimension that temporal distance provides, which allows him to reach broader truths.
Under Kent Nicholson's direction, there is never a false note in the emotionally rich two acts. The acting is superb, beginning with Linda Gehringer who, as Mary, shifts before our very eyes from the stooped octogenarian, wracked with pain, to a younger incarnation of herself, dancing with Pete. And it is her struggle to maintain her humor and dignity in the face of increasingly rapid decline that lingers in the imagination.
Tyler Pierce's Bill exudes both joy and intelligence, as he revels in what Cain refers to as the "absolutely exquisite people" his family members are. Paul is the character who changes the most — from uncomfortable student to Marine, to Vietnam War survivor, to accomplished teacher — and Aaron Blakely makes the character totally credible through each alteration. Leo Marks brings a quiet strength to the role of Pete, be it in explaining family rules to his children, or in offering solace and advice to his wife years after his death.
Scott Bradley's ingenious set allows for change of locale by relying on only minimal furniture at stage level. Aspects of various other locations — crystal chandeliers, strung shards of stained glass, curtained windows — stand ready to descend when the action moves from Mary's living room, or to light a Vietnam memorial from the floor.
While not every moment works (the play has trouble ending, and the conceit of relying on Biblical syntax eventually wears thin), "How to Write..." amply provides the "sense of joy" that Cain intended, joy in the lives witnessed as well as in the power of the playwright to resurrect them in exquisite detail.
"How to Write a New Book for the Bible" , and on .