Don’t let its title scare you away, How to Write a New Book for the Bible is first and foremost a beautiful story of love and family.
It can’t be coincidence that Pacific theatre Artistic Director Ron Reed has programmed playwright Bill Cain’s autobiographical piece around Mother’s Day. Fortunately that clever marketing ploy will pay off as Cain points out early through his character Bill that writers often turn to what they know and that trope pays off, even if it does take a full act to get there.
Through act one we are gradually introduced to the family and its dynamic. Bill, who also acts as narrator and is constantly breaking down the fourth wall, declares that his family is “functional”. The joke here of course is that most would characterize their family as being the exact opposite, but in the Cain household arguments were solved with very civilized rules and the father would buy the books the sons were assigned in school and spend long nights discussing them. Cain devotes much time showing us a pretty typical family as they deal with life and the inevitable death of their mother.
Accessing Cain’s more philosophical self though is much harder and the big reason that by the end of act one there is a sense something is missing. Cain has both his play’s title and the fact he is a Jesuit priest to blame. Sometimes crossing the line into sermon, Cain ultimately makes a promise he cannot keep and as we try to engage with the action on stage we’re constantly on the look-out for that metaphorical connection. When you finally realize that connection is not as strong as the play’s title might suggest, it becomes easier to simply enjoy it for what it is.
There are some terrific performances here from this cast although it is the dynamic between mother Mary (Erla Faye Forsyth) and her caregiver son Bill (Anthony F Ingram) that feels most real. Forsyth is particularly good in balancing the surprising amount of comedy with the inevitable drama. There is real pain in Daniel Arnold’s portrayal of the prodigal son Paul although there was a tendency to a single volume of anger. Byron Noble provides a suitably ethereal quality to his portrayal of the father, written almost as a distant memory. As we reach its inevitable conclusion, the actors tread softly to ensure they don’t push too far into sentimentality achieving a balance of both the pain and joy in death.
With these strong performances though comes an even stronger direction from Morris Ertman. As Cain’s play forces the actors to portray the family at various ages as well as other characters, Ertman effectively deals with this non-linear story by allowing the characters to float in and out of the action or allowing them to sit on the periphery of a scene even if they may not have a part in that particular moment. Ertman even manages to make the inevitable long distance telephone calls interesting. The scale of the show may not be grand, but there is such skill at play in Ertman’s direction that there is little doubt that a Jessie nomination is on the horizon.
Cain’s enigmatic title will surely alienate a segment of the theatre-going public and while it will no doubt play to a traditional Pacific Theatre crowd, it deserves more. Bring your mom or if she is no longer with you, bring your tissues and your memories.
How to Write a New Book for the Bible
By Bill Cain. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production. On stage at the Pacific Theatre through May 25, 2013. Visit http://www.pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.