Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 49 / 7 December 2017
 

Transitory life

Theatre


Tyler Pierce and Linda Gehringer play son and mother facing painful realities in How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Rep. (Photo: Courtesy of kevinberne.com)
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ADVERTISMENT

It's good and proper that your parents should die before you. We all understand that but still don't quite expect that this inevitability will apply to us personally. How a family maneuvers through this predictable but nonetheless traumatic physiological reality may be the most revealing moment in that family's history.

"If you want to see God, look at your family," says the narrator in Bill Cain's How to Write a New Book for the Bible. And he posits that the death-of-a-parent scenario can provide something akin to the Cliff Notes condensation of a family's dynamics. Cain and the narrator are one and the same, and his time helping his mother through her final months provides the framework for this memory play having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Cain is an award-winning playwright who also happens to be a Jesuit priest. But despite his primary calling and the Biblical reference in the title, the play takes a rather worldly view of God. "As a writer," the narrator says, "the Bible embarrasses me." And he never invokes God, Jesus, or an eternal paradise in an attempt to comfort his dying mother.

Cain intersperses vignettes from his days trying to ease his straight-talking mother toward death with flashbacks of his blindly optimistic father. "New baby on the way," Dad declares every time an ambulance passes. Bill's older brother, now far removed from the family home, provides some friction as he connects by phone with his care-giving brother. But not too much friction.

Despite the lack of breast-beating and guilt bombs often dropped in autobiographical dramas, Cain finds a more gentle way of sustaining interest. The authenticity that so obviously permeates the proceedings brings its own kinds of pleasure and pain. That Bill's mother is such an appealing character, one with stiff resolve, frank observations, an arch sense of humor, and no signs of self-pity gives Cain space to be more observational than conventionally dramatic.

The tactic is also immeasurably enhanced by the presence of Linda Gehringer as Bill's mother. The actress fully inhabits Mary's failing body, though Gehringer is clearly younger in years than Mary, and her delivery makes us believe every word she has to say.

The other characters and their interpreters are not so vivid, though Tyler Pierce is an agreeable and sincere narrator (and stand-in for the playwright), while Aaron Blakely as Bill's curt brother and Leo Marks in several roles (his best are the brief scenes as Bill's father) are commendable as well.

Director Kent Nicholson has smoothly directed the play built of brief scenes set both in the past and the present, and scenic designer Scott Bradley's use of ascending and descending suggestions of sets and props provides stylish fluidity.

"I believe all writing is prayer," says Bill, which is a convenient mantra for a playwright-priest – while providing a wisp of sanctity to all the ink-stained wretches of the world who are also known as journalists.

How to Write a New Book for the Bible will run through Nov. 20 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $14.50-$73. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.






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