The Book of Cain

9. November, 2011 Theater No comments

Playwright Bill Cain has explored Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot in his hit play Equivocation and Iraq War atrocities in 9 Circles, both at Marin Theatre Company last year (and Circles is also playing now at San Jose’s Renegade Theatre Experiment), but his world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is more nakedly personal. How to Write a New Book for the Bible is a beautifully touching account of his mother Mary dying of cancer, in a strong staging by Kent Nicholson with an entirely nonlocal cast. Cain’s narrative device for the play is as if he, the author, is just making it up as he goes along, with his family members occasionally chiding him from inside the story that he’s not telling it right. “Just don’t make me foolish, Billy,” Mary tells the playwright. “It wouldn’t be fair.”

Linda Gehringer and Tyler Pierce in How to Write a New Book for the Bible. Photo courtesy of

The play lovingly lingers on Mary’s quirks: her habit of hollering for Bill to come watch something inane on TV when he’s trying to write; how much she knows and remembers about the lives of her doctors and hairdressers from her usual friendly chattiness; they way she pretends she’s not in crippling pain when the physical therapist comes to check on her, resuming her stooped posture only when he leaves. Linda Gehringer gives a moving, vibrant performance as Mary, full of life in flashbacks and charmingly upbeat even at the end of her rope.

The point-of-view narrator of a family account like this is rarely the most interesting character, but Tyler Pierce’s Bill is sharp and sensitive, with endearingly wry humor even in exasperation. Bill’s the one who has to tell his mom she’s dying, just as he’d had to tell his dad the same thing years before, and we see both scenes playing out onstage. Leo Marks has a jolly charisma as dad Pete, the kind that you can’t possibly stay mad at, and he also has an Irish lilt so slight and occasional that it’s hard to tell if it’s supposed to be an accent or not. Aaron Blakely is reserved and remote as brother Paul, who rarely visits and is haunted by his experience in Vietnam. Marks and Blakely also play a variety of doctors and other caregivers.

Scott Bradley’s set places the play in an ethereal, non-literal space to begin with, dominated by a large stained-glass window, with windows, chandeliers and mirrored mobiles hanging from above. A lamp dangles in the air as if perched on an invisible dresser, and a freestanding door evokes the family home.

The weakest part of the play is all wrapped up in its title. Cain is a Jesuit priest in addition to his playwriting endeavors, although he has a good sense of humor about that too. (“As a writer, the Bible is embarrassing,” he says. “It begins with bad anthropology and it ends with bad science fiction.”) He gets bogged down in theological questions and a lot of talk about various great mysteries of his family, which he doesn’t mean in the conventional sense of an unknown fact that has yet to be uncovered but in the religious sense of a great truth that can never be fully understood by the mortal mind.  All the rhetoric about writing a new book for the Bible feels forced and makes the play seem long at two and a half hours, and the less said about the cockamamie otherworldly encounter near the end the better.  Up to that point, however, it’s a heartwarming, bittersweet and witty family tribute to the house of Cain.

How to Write a New Book for the Bible
Through November 20
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #97 of 2011, attended October 12.

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