How To Write a New Book for the Bible

“How to Write a New Book for the Bible” by Bill Cain opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last night.  I attended the play without knowing the plot or the playwright.  I was invited and intrigued, though made wary by the title. As a clergywoman I have learned to make an effort to avoid theatre pieces with “Bible” in the title.  This one is an exception.

The play brings to life (and stage) the journal of Billy, a priest and writer, exploring details in the life, deaths and functionality of his family of origin as he cares for his dying mother.

Beginning with “write what you know” Cain charges with humor and wisdom that autobiography is always mystery, fights are sacraments, rules provide security, and all writing is prayer.

Humor and keen observation bring characters to life.  And good performances, particularly the brilliant portrait of Billy’s mother, Mary, played by Linda Gehringer, make the play work.

His mother asks Billy not to make her look foolish in his writing.  He does not, nor does Cain.  He honors her writing and rewriting greeting cards, keeps her fully human and passionate, and documents her struggle and grace at death. He magnifies her vulnerability in all its particularity.

This play is as opportunity for fierce and funny conversations.

But it may well be painful to watch for those of us who come from families far more messy and messed up than this one.  Most families are closer to stories of terror in the Bible than to this particular family’s niceness.

My disappointment is that the play does not even go to the depths promised, depths described, not shown to the audience.  Morphine hallucinations, a journey to the Vietnam Memorial with his vet brother, and dialogue outside the apartment where his mother lived and died does not come close to the power suggested by the events.

What did move to depths of love and suffering and release were not the sermonic words or dialogue. The small physical movements between the words that soared. When his mother’s strength fails, her strain and surrender made most of the audience weep.

If we are invited to add a book to the Bible by writing our families’ stories, we need to dive deeper before surfacing, before ending the fight.

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