Bill Cain is not your typical, every day playwright. The award-winning author’s last two plays, Equivocation and 9 Circles, garnered the prestigious American Theatre Critics’ Association/Steinberg Award in two consecutive years—an unprecedented feat. And beyond being a playwright, Bill is also a Jesuit priest. In a recent interview for How to Write a New Book for the Bible, he explained how being a priest affects his writing: “I’m a Jesuit priest, and the Jesuits weren’t founded to live in a cloister or a monastery. We’re supposed to go into the world and find the presence of God there and celebrate it. I’d say that’s a pretty good description of what all of us do in theatre do as well. Theatre is always proclaiming ‘attention must be paid’ to what is neglected and holy. Willy Loman. Antigone. Blanche. In this play—Mary. The jobs of writer and priest—as ‘Bill’ says in the play—are closely related. In both, you point and say, ‘Look. Look there. That person you haven’t noticed—he, she matters.”
How to Write a New Book for the Bible is Cain’s most autobiographical play, which he says “focuses on three people: my father, my mother and my brother. These are exquisite human beings and I wanted to ritualize in some way the wonder of their lives as a way of celebrating them.” Cain’s joyous, poignant new comedy paints an intimate portrait of his family—while simultaneously celebrating life, death and the innate divinity in every family.
Cain writes himself as a character in the play, “Bill,” who narrates the story of returning home to care for his mother Mary, after she’s diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer in her 80s. Hilarity ensues, as mother and son learn how to negotiate their own everyday rituals—of TV news and sports, pills and pain, doctor’s visits and domestic disagreements. And as the story of their last nine months together unfolds, the play flashes back and forth in time to tell the story of the entire Cain family. Pete, the kind-hearted father, who was a self-taught engineer and a very good dancer. Paul, Bill’s older brother, an athlete and soldier who becomes an award-winning teacher. Bill, the writer and priest, who sets out to honor his family by writing down their stories—and postulates that every family’s story should be added to the Bible (that most famous collection of familial stories).
Bill wrote the first part of How to Write a New Book for the Bible shortly after his mother died. “When I was cleaning out the apartment after mom’s death and dealing with all the junk that got left behind, I had to ask myself over and over again what was worth saving. I came to the conclusion that what was most worth saving were the stories. And not just in my family, but in any family. Writing is a way of saving the stories.” Over the next 10 years, Cain wrote his family’s stories down in the form of a book—which he then adapted into this play.
Lauded SCR actress Linda Gehringer originated the role of Mary Cain in the first reading of How to Write a New Book for the Bible at the 2009 Ojai Playwrights Festival and in two subsequent readings of the play. The play received its co-world premiere last season at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre.
|THE CAST: Tyler Pierce, Aaron Blakely, Linda Gehringer and Jeff Biehl.|
The San Francisco Chronicle called How to Write a New Book for the Bible “bracingly personal, smart, funny [and] affecting.” The San Jose Mercury News said Cain has “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 in that ritual.”
Asked during rehearsals at SCR to describe the process of creating How to Write a New Book for the Bible, Cain said: “I don’t think people have any idea how short theater rehearsal periods are. You have just about enough time to learn the lines and get it on its feet. With an established play, you know basically how it works, so you have some protection. With a new play, you have to invent an entire world around the text—all the while re-doing the text as you discover its hidden strengths and weaknesses. We invented the play at Berkeley Rep (and were lucky enough to win the critics award for Best Play as well as acting nominations for all the actors). At Seattle Rep we had a chance to refine it a bit. At SCR, we are finally getting a chance to live in it.”