Reviewed by Judy Richter
The Bay Area is awash in world premieres at three of its major companies. First there was "Clementine in the Lower 9" at TheatreWorks, followed by "Bellwether" at Marin Theatre Company. Although both have much to recommend them, the best of the lot is Berkeley Repertory Theatre's entry, "How to Write a New Book for the Bible" by Bill Cain, who also happens to be a Jesuit priest.
In this autobiographical two-act play, the main character is the playwright himself, Bill Cain, known to his family as Billy (Tyler Pierce). He contends that because the Bible is mostly a family story, he wants to write a new Bible book based on his own family. And right from the start, Billy, the narrator, assures the audience that his is a functional family. Even though family members have their share of tiffs, the anger seldom lasts long. The prevailing emotion is love between and among the parents, Mary (Linda Gehringer) and Pete (Leo Marks), and their two sons, Paul (Aaron Blakely), the elder, and Billy.
The central action concerns Billy's return to his hometown of Syracuse to care for 82-year-old Mary, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and who has only a few months to live. She has been on her own because Pete, who also had cancer, has already died and Paul is a teacher in El Paso, where he lives with his wife and children. Mary and Paul don't seem to recognize Billy's writing as a real job.
Events shift between the past and present with important events in the family's history. In the meantime, Mary's condition deteriorates. Blakely and Marks portray other characters as needed in these scenes.One of the more moving past events concerns Paul's wartime experiences in Vietnam and a years-later visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The action takes place on Scott Bradley's minimalist set with lighting by Alexander V. Nichols, costumes by Callie Floor and sound by Matt Starritt. Director Kent Nicholson guides the fine ensemble cast with a sure hand. Gehringer's feisty Mary relishes sports on TV and sneaks cigarettes in the bathroom even as she becomes weaker and more wracked with pain. Pierce's Billy is the dutiful, attentive and often exasperated caretaker who willingly leaves the stimulating environs of New York City and returns to dull Syracuse for her sake. Blakely as Paul and Marks as Pete show their versatility in creating peripheral characters.
Because Cain doesn't soft-pedal the progressive toll that cancer takes on Mary, the play might be hard going for those who have witnessed a similar situation with a loved one. On the other hand, he doesn't get maudlin. He weaves lots of humor into the play, especially on Mary's part.
Basing his script on a diary he kept during his stay in Syracuse, Cain has written a loving tribute to his entire family while providing an absorbing evening of theater. From Berkeley it will go Seattle Repertory Theatre, which is co-producer of this memorable world premiere.