Two years ago next April, I sat in a hospital room and waited for the person who brought me into this world to depart it. Anyone who has shared a similar experience will undoubtedly be moved by Bill Cain's play How to Write a New Book for the Bible. It will dredge up painful memories, remind you of things you did—or didn't—say, and basically rip your heart out of your chest. Definitely not first-date material.
Yet there is so much humor, profundity and impeccable craft, both in the script and on stage, that the experience, though at times painful, is also exquisitely beautiful. If you're curious as to why the marginalized and overlooked artistic medium of theater exists in this world of bombastic visual wizardry and instant access to everything, look no further than this play.
No, check that. A play such as this doesn't serve as a reminder that theater remains a viable art form. Rather, it shows that theater is fundamental to the human experience. You don't reach emotional catharsis on YouTube, Susan Boyle or not; you get it with real people performing in front of other real people, performing an ancient ritual in a holy space. And that word holy, while dripping with religious subtext, is less divinely theological than it is humanly truthful, at least in the context of this play. Any time we gather in communal ritual and expose ourselves to the enormous questions posed in a play such as this, we do so in a space not consecrated by some deity, but by our collective humanity.
Did I mention How to Write a New Book for the Bible is also really fucking funny?
Bill, the main character, is a writer and a priest. Both callings, as he says, require their practitioners to notice things, and then point them out. In this play, he uses the impending death of his 82-year-old mother to craft an extraordinary narrative from the life of a very ordinary woman. By extension, he's also writing about his other family members: his father who died of cancer years before, as well as his elder brother, a highly lauded high-school teacher who was traumatized by his experience in the Vietnam War.
At its simplest level, the play is a vivid account of Bill's relationship with his feisty, stubborn mother, Mary, in the last six months of her life. There are hospital visits, pills to be dispersed, spats over cable-TV news programs and college football games, all the humorous highs and devastating lows of a grown man trying to take care of a dying parent while also trying to make some sense of his relationship with her. But it's also a play told in numerous flashbacks that director Kent Nicholson seamlessly weaves into the main narrative. We meet Bill's father, Pete (a versatile Jeff Biehl, who also plays roles ranging from a female nurse to a physical therapist), and his brother, Paul (a layered Aaron Blakely), an idealistic young man who joined the army to serve his country only to realize there's little glory in mindless slaughter.
How to Write a New Book for the Bible's emotional freight is matched by its intellectual heft. Though he is a priest, Bill doesn't view the relationship between Jesus and his mother through a warm and fuzzy prism—it's a story about a dysfunctional family (Mary demanded miracles from her son, who ran away at the age of 13). The play is peppered with allusions to that story and Bill's own seeming crisis of faith. On one hand, he desperately wants to think that things matter, that details count, that the story of his family is as important as the first family of Christianity. But faced with his mother's impending death and dealing with emotions ranging from guilt and resentment to love and compassion, he continually questions that notion.
The humor in such seemingly mordant material springs from the spirited relationship between Bill and Mary. Bill (a compelling and likeable Tyler Pierce) is absolutely his mother's son. He's demanding, stubborn, consumed by work and painfully honest with himself. Mary (longtime South Coast Repertory mainstay Linda Gehringer, masterfully playing some 30 years past her real age) is equally resolute in her personality. And the sparks that fly from that friction, leveled out by their obvious love for each other, generate fiery humor, something that is essential in a play that, in many ways, is so heavy.
A remarkable aspect of the piece is that, unlike so many memory plays about families, there are no big secrets, no skeletons in the closet, no mystery other than the ineffable mystery of life itself. And by focusing his lens so intensely on his own family (according to the program notes, this is a true-to-life experience), playwright Cain manages to address the nature of the extended human family. For the bible that he's really talking about isn't the Bible; it's each family's bible, the codex that contains the rules, stories, personalities, flaws and virtues of every family everywhere.
This review appeared in print as “The Bible of Life: South Coast Repertory's latest is a masterful, hilarious (seriously!) treatment of the impending death of a parent.”