Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Play review: Bill Cain's new work, 'How to Write a New Book for the Bible' at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

At Berkeley Rep, Tyler Pierce (left) and Linda Gehringer star in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible. Photo:


This play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, is good regional theatre USA. This play is well worth the price of the ticket, which for the seats held by this writer and his assistant were each $53. Good seats they were, for we were able to see and hear everything. Terrific, though pretty basic as that kind of arrangement and need in a theatre may be, it is written about here to let the reader know that this size theatre, in this venue, is such a good place for a play like Bill Cain’s new work that is in development. After all, the play is new and the manuscript, let alone the players in their role, still being formed and developed. This adds to the fun, and though some say an Opening Night isn’t the best night to come to a play, there is an excitement about Opening Night and the opportunity to see a kind of birth of work in the theatre. Let this writer add to such excitement, Hallelujah! A birth of a play by Bill Cain in the theatre is presented in Berkeley, California USA on Addison Street in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

(By the way, parking in a nearby garage was a mere $5. This is an added attraction.)

How to Write a New Book for the Bible is an intriguing title that reflects the playwright’s comment that each family creates a Biblical story, a drama, and epic, and myth, and a statement of human lives on earth as created beings of God. That isn’t something that is said so often in the theatre in so clear a manner, or so interesting a form without it being heavy handed. The play has a human touch that is while sorrowful, and amusing, also somewhat ironic and reflective. That’s a lot to pack into an ethos, but since the work is a kind of diary and the character Bill is a kind of narrator and observer (is he not a writer?), we get the journey of a life lived and the end of a woman’s life who is clearly identified as a strong woman and mother.

The theatre Berkeley Repertory is an attractive place for a play, a place to visit, and located in a safe district that has an air of a small city’s sophistication, enough of that in this neighborhood to suggest an excitement and that in this way the handsome front of the modern look of the building is a marker for a living theatre district. Berkeley Repertory Theatre has many kudos from its life of presenting work in the theatre, and this is not the place to say it has a good reputation and that this writer isn’t alone nor the first to notice the quality and even a kind of élan of this place in the University town of Berkeley, so well-known for its more liberal ideas and various political concerns. But the theatre does not follow the party line of the City, per se. One thing I like about this theatre is they are willing to publish a brochure on the play, which was handed out to the Press among others that says, “World Premiere.” In a way, this is true for How to Write a New Book for the Bible.

This is its launching place, a new work that will appear elsewhere in regional theatres in the United States in years to come. Directed by Kent Nicholson, and a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre where it will go after the Thrust Stage location within Berkeley Repertory run from October 7 through November 20, 2011, a postcard tells us that all one needs to do to learn more is when visiting the internet, click Here is the text from the postcard, a postcard from the theatre:


Every family creates a sacred story out of love. In Bill Cain’s poignant new play, a man moves in with his mother when she becomes too frail to care for herself. Their reunion heals old wounds, opening a heartfelt and humorous new chapter in their relationship. From the award-winning author of Equivocation and 9 Circles, this timeless tale celebrates a mother’s love and a son’s devotion. Respected director Kent Nicholson comes back to the Bay Area for the world premiere of How to Write a New Book for the Bible.


Bill Cain in his new play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible talks about his mother getting old and dying, about being a son and going through the death of a parent, but mostly the work was noticeably active in a way that brought the audience to laugh out loud at the premiere of the work, performed opening night, October 12, 2011, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This is a play about what it means to be a family. For Jesuit Priest Bill Cain, who as theatre person has the name Bill Cain, no Father Bill or The Reverend Bill, but plain Bill, the story is one of Biblical kind. More on this later.

This writer was interested that a Jesuit Priest lived the theatrical life in the regional theatre of America, wrote successful and lauded as award winning works, and also entered the world of television writing. He said in his interview, found below, that the Jesuits go into the World to find God. I assume they also bring God to the world. By this God is meant as the Triune God and Christ in particular.

Before opening night, where this writer was part of the audience and joined in the pleasure of what some said on exiting the theatre after the night of performance that lasted 2 hours 20 minutes for two acts, a “wonderful” work, an interchange of emails with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre press officer told this truth. The Press Officer said that everyone called Bill, Bill. Apparently, this writer was the only one he’d heard refers to the Jesuit Priest as Father Bill. So I stopped doing so, recognizing the theatrical name of a playwright, and the writing name for the author of this really sensitive and beautiful work.

The manuscript sent to this Religion Writer prior to the opening night production is a lovely piece of craftsmanship, and though at the reading I did in one seating I found it more beautiful and touching than funny; the opening night audience of the just about packed theatre saw it as a funny play. Lots of laughter, enjoyment, fun and just plain real attention played to a performance that started out a bit off timing and as the evening progressed gained its feet and went so very well. This writer found the evening’s work of performance engrossing.

One thing noticed by me was that the actor Tyler Pierce playing the lead role of Bill, whose mother was in her last time of life, moving in journey to death and in pain while that transpired, as too young to be believable in the part. Also, the role of Bill wasn’t interpreted in a Priestly manner, not in a character and demeanor of authority and compassion as this writer knows Priests offer in their real presence.

Disturbing to this member of the audience as that was, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t tracking this imaginative play with its spare and symbolic set of few pieces of set on the stage in the manner it was presented and meant to be enjoyed. The audience needed to have imagination, and they themselves, as I did, had to engage their imagination to see the different speeches, and intertwined statements and little scenes come to credibility, life and understanding in its directorial and theatrical presentation. This even by the written style and structure of the play by the playwright that skillfully intertwined various parts well. This isn’t to say the play is a radical work of structure and writing. It is not. It is to say that at Berkeley Repertory Theatre one must as audience member “get with” the point of view and kind of casting choice made to get the full impact of the style presented in the staging of the work. This member of the audience had to, anyway.

Of course, in time this play may as it is developed see other interpretations, and this creative one was intriguing when thought about in retrospect.

A word on the lighting and sound: No doubt someone gave thought to both, for both contributed well to the kind of structure of small, intermixed scenes in time and character, almost like a series of speeches and eras of memory in the life of the son Bill and his Brother—even his dead father who appears to speak in the play.

Imaginative, Yes. Engrossing, Yes. Does it work, Yes. Thank you for a skilled piece of playwright theatre Bill Cain, or if you prefer, Father Bill Cain, Jesuit Priest who lives in the world of the theatrical community. Excellent work of imagination by director Kent Nicholson, especially his staging.

One thing that bothered this Religion Writer was how irreverent the handling was of the more Holy parts, and hopefully later in a more narrative time of this review there will be more specific reference to what is meant by narrative time and Holy dialogue and invocation. Some will be noted in the Postscript with excerpts from the manuscript.

This is a Berkeley, California audience, an audience consisting of many young people and some old people, who may be less engaged or interested in the life of a Church or even this family with the son Bill who is a Priest who works as a writer and is working on a screenplay. They are not seen as particularly religious or pious, but presented more as human figures in relation to God and the end of life.

Also, the character of Bill is played as a man who is a writer before being a Priest, or as the playwright says in author’s message, as a person before being a Priest. This interesting concept is a subtext of the film, and another part of Bill Cain’s autobiographical play that he says he did not write so much as he took notes on from his own mother’s death and its events which he later transcribed from the diary he took.

Comedy? No. This is not comedy? Pathos and sadness expressed as laughter? Yes. It is a kind of post-modern interpretation and understanding of religion and the holy, especially matters of God as held in attitude and perception by most of the audience and played to with a kind of gusto by the players on the stage. It is even a kind of attempt at getting a laugh with sad, sorrowful situations of dying and coming to end of life and some analogies with the Bible as interpreted and played out in family dialogue and life.

This so much so that to an extent the language of the Bible is borrowed, or better yet, emulated in speech by the characters during part of the first act to show how human life is held in esteem by God. So I interpreted the intent of this kind of language, though Bill as Priest questioned whether God cared for man’s living or dying, or in the case of his family and their lives together–including the mother’s passions while coming towards death in her journey– as something God didn’t noticed. Strange stuff for a Priest to say, so I wondered and even thought in a critical way of the remarks.

The play is given to musing: It is Bill Cain’s play, and he is a real Roman Catholic Jesuit Priest in the real world as well as the world of the theatre, and this is what he said in his work How to Write a New Book for the Bible through his characters who offered their transitions and humanity of concern in relation to the Almighty as known in the Old and New Testaments. God is not paying attention to humans. He answers that remark later by the theme of the work, so this writer says in the Post Script.

The sets designed by Scott Bradley, and costumes by Callie Floor, with light by Alexander V. Nichols, and sound by Matt Starritt is professional. Again, there is creativity in the style and production of the staging of these elements, even to the change of costume by characters which are so necessary to the various presentations of scenes to help clarify the action and place of the scenes.

Aaron Blakely as Paul, the older brother who is a war hero and spent time in Vietnam, plays a strong and clear role in voice and reading of lines to add support and strength to the credibility of the show and its poignant caregiving. It is a juxtaposition that is rooted in a sibling relationship that in the play has as central focus the boys’ mother Linda Gehringer (Mary).

She is flexible, goes through many different moods, feelings and reactions in the telling of her life and in talking of her boys and husband and family that it is a kind of tour de force. Give Linda Gehringer a 42-gun salute. She shows well practiced and developed range as actress in her role: it is a meaty part for her…well done, and apparently enjoyed by this actress who is a central part of the play.

Leo Marks (Pete) is portrayed as a younger man, and one scene this writer found compelling was at the end of the play when Pete, Mary’s husband, greets her in heaven, creating a welcoming and expressive love. There is comfort for Mary in heaven, and even some relief from her trial the pain and cancer was to her as she lived toward death at the end of her life. The play by Bill Cain does not make her look foolish. She is a sound woman, despite her trials.

It is Tyler Pierce (Bill) who must spark the play, and be narrator and the place where the center of the work is found, not the mother. He does not look like a Priest to this member of the audience. He does not have manners or attitude in speech of a Priest, but looks not his age as it would be with an older mother, but appears the younger in year’s son who lives a kind of angst as a writer and does not hold angst of similar kind as caregiver for his mother. It was a good idea to interpret the part and play it in this manner, for after a while the consistence of performance by the actor becomes believable and engaging.

An intention of the theatre Berkeley Rep, as it is called, is to be a center for “the creation and development of new work.” Berkeley Rep has met that goal in this work.


Berkeley Rep Dramaturge Madeleine Oldham posed some questions for the playwright, Bill Cain and reported on them in print. She asks:

Religion in contemporary America can be a fraught conversation at times. Have you encountered any pushback about drawing on the Bible in your play?

I think we all sense the religious nature of family and this play places that—as does the Bible—at the center of revelation. It’s hard to quarrel with that. One message given by the author so that we feel there is a lesson in coming to death and being companion in aiding the ailing given in the play: The Bible—it’s not a rule book. It’s the story of a family.

What do you hope people will walk away with when they see this play?

I hope they walk away with a great sense of joy, walk away carrying less fear about how life ends. My parents both gave off light as they died, and they found a way to make their deaths a summation of the goodness they had received and given for their whole lives. The play is very funny. And I think the reason for that is my parents understood that death does not negate life, but it’s one of the things in life. I hope the play works as a celebration of all of the darkness and light and not just some of it.

Do you write in other formats? What attracts you to writing for the stage?

I wrote for television for many years and loved doing that. Nothing Sacred for ABC-TV was one of the great experiences of my life. It won the Peabody Award and the Writer’s Guild Award with a bunch of others. We didn’t last long—one season—but, while we lasted, we created a national community and it was an extraordinary experience.
I don’t find much difference between stage and television. I love them both for the same reasons—gathering a community around a story—with any luck, with some laughter—always widening the circle of inclusion. I love theatre for its intimacy and television for its vast reach.

In her review appearing in The San Jose Mercury News, Karen D’Souza writes on October 13, 2011, In its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, “Bible” is a valediction inviting mourning, a tenderly crafted if not fully realized memoir about the holy trinity of Cain’s personal life. While the mother, father and brother characters come into sharper focus than the figure of the writer himself, Cain has still created a profound meditation on the shared narratives that hold a family together through the vagaries of life and death.
The intimacy of his remembrance gives this memory play its shattering resonance. The playwright is giving a blessing to his family in the form of theater, and there’s no denying the beauty of that ritual.

The Marin Theatre Company, another regional theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area, says this about writer Bill Cain. A quote about working with Bill Cain from their artistic director Jasson Minadakis:
“Bill has an amazingly inquisitive view of the world, as one would expect from a Jesuit priest. And we’re lucky that he has focused his questions through theater. His plays are vehicles for artists and audiences to explore the nature of truth, joy, pain, triumph and loss. As a storyteller, he examines big themes and big moments from history (both social and religious) and they are focused in by the priest in him that wants us to find our own truth and connection to the challenges, questions posed and answers found by his characters. When you experience one of his plays, you feel larger when you leave. He has the gift very few writers can claim, his work makes you richer and larger for having experienced it.”
For those readers who find this letter-to-a-reader as-review too long, suffice it to say, I like the play; it is good; go.


The notes that follow indicate that the quote from the manuscript in version August, 2011, reproduced with permission of the author, was noticeably fulfilled opening night. The big crowd—for most seats were taken—were greeted with the empty stage at play’s beginning. This spare set: of lamp (hung from the ceiling on a wire at table height above the stage floor), table with coffee cup (white), simple straight back dark wooden chair, and in the background a large stained glass marked at ceiling height by chandelier’s (3), some black & silver mobiles, created the set. This filled the author’s request, “no realistic set, please.”

At the beginning of the play, the author establishes the character of protagonist Bill in a monologue. It starts off a relationship Bill has with his father, mother and siblings in a manner that tells us something personal and private about this man who has come to live with his mother who is coming to the end of her life. Note he’s also been with his father when he was dying.

It is here that the play enters into a dialogue with the audience, a kind of narrative that in its imaginative structure and presentation engages the audience with its sorrow, humor, and even private look into the lives of this family as seen by the Priest who is a writer. This is a play about a graceful death.

Note this writer of the review has permission to quote from the play, but not to copy it or reprint it here. So that is enough to introduce the work, and give the reader of this review a sense of the working manuscript. The working manuscript, like the play itself that is a work brought to life on the stage, may be changing. That said earlier in this review formed as letter to the reader; suffice it to say in this post script that there are many lines that seem telling of the characters. Bill says at one point, “I had committed much too deeply to my own unhappiness.” Though it is in reading in manuscript form a moving thing, even contemplative and self-revealing to read, the audience on opening night thought it funny enough as a line to laugh.

This writer noted that the character of Bill was portrayed by the actor as Priest who reads lines like comedy.

Having the opportunity to read some of the reviews that were published prior to this article-review, one reviewer said the use of morphine, fed to Bill’s mother for pain, mixed with applesauce, was offered as a sacrament. There is no doubt that the character of Linda suffers from extraordinary pain, and if one believes pain a sacrament or its relief, they are missing a number of moving and more human like sacramental moments like those revealed and played at the moving ending of this work. There humanity is seen in a quest for comfort and rest, for the trial of Linda ends in such. That is a kind of sacrament to this writer. God is comforter as Holy Spirit, and Heaven is a place of joy and rest from labor of living. I think the medical side of the play is palliative rather than sacramental.

But the theme that is important to the play, and noted by its title, “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” is revealed and made plain in this short speech by Bill who shows us that each of us as a part of humanity are important to God, that our lives as recognized and loved by the almighty are really part of a great Christian dialogue of Christ as part of the Trinity and our own mortal time on earth. To end the post script and this writer’s ode as almost sermon to the writer’s intent as seen by an audience member, this quotation from the play’s manuscript:


Playwright Bill Cain

  1. 1. It must be exciting to begin a new work as a playwright, developing its script and creating in so collaborative a way as theatre collaborates, especially in the Regional Theater like Berkeley Repertory where many plays have seen similar dramatic action. Will you speak to us a little bit about how and why you came to Berkeley Repertory Theatre for this play of yours, “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” and why Berkeley?

The people at Berkeley Rep saw a workshop we did of the play at Theatre Works in Palo Alto, [California]. And Berkeley Rep was kind enough to invite us to work here. There have been three places in the Bay Area that have been very kind to me: Marin Theatre Company, Theatre Works, and Berkeley Rep. So I’m very grateful to the Bay Area. I think the community has been very receptive to my work.

  1. 2. As a Jesuit Priest in the Roman Catholic Church, your experience in living a life of Religious Order must be in some ways significantly aware of what it is to live in theater community. Speak with us some about the community of the theater, in specific that which you know well, and that is Regional Theater around the United States? Is there something special, even specially and distinctly religious or spiritual about the life and world of the theater person? This whether playwright, actor, or director—especially in light of your own profession of playwright-Priest and its vantage.

I’m a Jesuit priest, and Jesuits were founded not so much to find God in a church or monastery, but to find God in the world – specifically to find God in all things. And it’s at that point where a religious vocation and a theatrical vocation blend perfectly. The regional theatres of this country spend their time and energy trying to discover the soul of modern America. It’s a kind of secular sanctity. And it’s an honor to be invited to work in that setting.

  1. 3. The Premiere, let alone the rehearsal period of a new play must be exciting for the playwright to see as their “child” goes free and has a kind of life of its own. When reading about your teaching work on the internet, I see that you have interest in the role of the actor. How does this play excite an actor as a part, and as in the past, do you pull out many dramatic stops in the structure and dramatic form of the play? What parts of this play shall we as playgoers look for when coming to see, “How to Write a New Book for the Bible?”… Especially in the work of the actor or actors.

I think that what we seek when we go to the theatre is the freedom the actor achieves on stage. I think we are freed by seeing an actor courageously reach for the limits of his or her humanity. This inspires us and sets the bar for our lives when we leave the theatre. My new play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, is about my parents, about their lives and their deaths. They lived passionately, and they died with grace. The actors in our cast are reaching for their limits. They’re confronting their passion for life, the conflicts of family, and the limits of death… reaching for something beyond. It’s an extraordinary cast, doing extraordinary work.

  1. 4. May we return to the subject of the theatre world and living the theatrical life? One reason for my strong interest is your profession as Priest and playwright, with emphasis on Priest. Talk to us a little about the sacramental nature of a dramatic work, and how it as art engages a theatre goer, and what you as a writer see as some of the effective dramatic scenes and methods you have found in your own work? This especially in your professional viewpoint in looking over your plays. But almost as importantly, what of this and the artistic form and such has caught the imagination and the involvement of play goers to your own plays? Will you give us one example or more?

I think the theatrical act of stepping on a stage is in and of itself a religious activity. Since How to Write a New Book for the Bible is autobiographical, one of the characters is a priest – and he says that the essence of writing is pointing. Saying, “Look there, look at that thing set apart. That’s holy. God cares about that.” So whether it’s Arthur Miller saying about Willy Loman, “Attention must be paid,” or Tennessee Williams pointing to Blanche Dubois as she discovers “Sometimes – there’s God – so quickly.” The theatrical act is always an act that makes the spiritual visible. The nature of a sacrament, the essence of a sacrament, is to make the invisible visible. In the Christian religion, bread and wine evoke the body of God. In theatre, it is the actors’ bodies that evoke the soul of humanity.

  1. 5. Thank you so much for giving us some of your time during this busy period when you are preparing in rehearsal for the Premiere of work (October 12, 2011) and playing from October 7 to November 30, 2011. Are you looking forward to going to Seattle, Washington afterward for another run of performance? Also if I have missed asking you something, tell us about it now.

Theatre is no longer the possession of a single city. When you enter theatre now, you become part of a national community. It’s an extraordinary thing in an age of individualism to be welcomed into this community. At the moment, I am lucky enough to have plays in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and soon in Seattle and Washington, D.C. It’s such an honor to have homes in these cities.

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