I wonder if any son has ever paid greater tribute to his mother than Bill Cain does in How To Write A New Book For The Bible, his extraordinary new play about her death—and her life, told extraordinarily well in its Southern California Premiere at South Coast Repertory.

 “Whatever you do, don’t make me foolish.” exhorts Mary Cain (Linda Gehringer) to her Jesuit priest son Bill (Tyler Pierce) early on in the play, a wish the playwright has granted with generosity and grace. Idiosyncratic Mary may be, and at times a pain in the you-know-what, but foolish she is not, nor are any of the characters Cain has drawn from his own life, people we get to know (in ways we may not even know our own parents and siblings) over the course of How To Write’s riveting two acts.

In the great Memory Play tradition of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, How To Write A New Book For The Bible flashes back in time from the writer/protagonist’s present to those moments in his past that hold greatest significance to him, albeit less chronologically than Williams’ presented his own Memories Of Mother.

Though Mary and Pete Cain (Jeff Biehl) raised two sons, Paul (Aaron Blakeley) and Bill, it’s naturally the unmarried one who ends up taking care of his ailing mother. Visits to Mary’s greenhorn doctor alternate with moments from Bill’s childhood (the night he accidentally smashed a pumpkin to smithereens stands out for its blend of laughter and heart), and scenes of his parents in their earlier, still vital years, memories of his father’s own bout with terminal cancer juxtaposed with Mary’s rapidly declining condition.

 There is a ring of truth to How To Write’s anecdotally amusing remembrances of things past, whether its Mary’s insistence on Land O’Lakes Lightly Salted Butter and nothing else, or her ability to hoodwink a physical therapist into believing she’s as fit as a fiddle when in reality, even simple movements can cause her great pain, or Mary’s addiction to sports and reality TV to the consternation of her adult son, there being apparently only one television set in the house. And then there’s the matter of her closet smoking—or should that be bathroom smoking?

One of How To Write A New Book For The Bible’s most memorable sequence happens to have nothing to do with Mary’s illness or indeed with the Cain matriarch at all. Early on we learn that during older brother Paul’s year-long military service in Vietnam, there was one week out of fifty-two in which a letter did not arrive home from Southeast Asia. It is midway through Mary’s illness that the two brothers head to Washington DC for a cathartic visit to the Vietnam War Memorial, a powerful scene which explains that missing letter and ends Act One with a wallop.

Los Angeles audiences have already been treated to Cain’s work with his Scenie-winning Equivocation and Nine Circles, each of them every bit as as thought-and-discussion-provoking as his latest. How To Write A New Book For The Bible has the added bonus of being the most accessible of the three and the easiest to simply surrender oneself to. It may also be the hardest to watch, simply because despite its exhilarating forays into comedic territory, seeing these characters face their all too human mortality can’t help but hit home to audience members with aging parents or those who find themselves contemplating their own end of days.

Still, this should not be a deterrent to anyone craving great theater, which How To Write A New Book For The Bible most certainly is.

 With writing as rich as Cain’s, it should come as no surprise to South Coast Repertory regulars that the actors assembled in Costa Mesa give performances as brilliant as they come, three of them having originated their roles in How To Write A New Book For The Bible’s 2011 World Premiere at Berkeley Rep and repeated them earlier this year at Seattle Rep under the inspired direction of Kent Nicholson, who helms this third staging as well.

It’s also entirely fitting that Gehringer, whose Scenie-winning Best Actress turn in Doubt left no doubt as to her prodigious talents, now returns to her home base as Mary, a role which has her spanning decades in the space of seconds, every bit as convincing as a still vital 40something as an octogenarian weakened by age and illness, yet still embued with fury, grit, and grace. Though it’s still early in StageSceneLA’s 2012-13 calendar year, I’d venture to guess that no one will top Gehringer’s unforgettable work as Mary Cain anytime soon.

As the playwright’s stand-in, the charismatic Pierce tops his Scenie-winning Outstanding Actor turn in the Pasadena Playhouse’s The Night Is A Child with a star-making performance as Bill, a role the gifted young actor imbues with warmth, humor, wisdom, and a combination of a son’s love for the woman who bore him and and the pain and anger at seeing her so debilitated by a body that has betrayed her.

Blakeley is equally memorable as Paul, from his moments as a gung-ho soldier to his gut-wrenching confession at the Vietnam War Memorial, and he doubles amusingly as a doctor too wet behind the ears to know how to deal on a human level with an 80something woman in the final stage of her life.

 Finally, Biehl proves a terrific addition to the How To Write family as patriarch Pete, whom we see mostly in his younger years as husband and father to a pair of growing boys. Biehl’s brief scene as a Pete weakened by his own losing bout with cancer is devastating by comparison, and he gets his own delightful cameo showcase as the physical therapist who proves no match for Mary.

South Coast Rep has wisely imported the production’s design team from Berkeley and Seattle. Scenic designer Scott Bradley has created a relatively spare but quite dazzling set, one in which lamps and windows drop down from above to suggest the play’s varied locales and a single trunk proves a treasure trove of props (and a multipurpose piece of furniture on its own). Alexander V. Nichols lights Bradley’s set exquisitely, and never more so than when the two designers join forces at the Vietnam War Memorial. Callie Floor’s costumes and Matt Staritt’s sound complete the design package to perfection.

Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Kathryn Davies stage manager.

Audiences in search of light entertainment will have to search elsewhere than South Coast Repertory during How To Write A New Book For The Bible’s stay at the Segerstrom Stage. Still, tough-going as it may be during its final scenes, a heady mix of humor, humanity, and heart make Bill Cain’s latest a richly rewarding experience for those willing to take the emotional ride.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
October 30, 2012
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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