Bill Cain’s humorous and emotionally devastating How to Write a New Book for the Bible, an autobiographical tragicomedy having its world premiere at the Berkeley Rep until Nov. 20, dramatizes the death of the playwright’s mother. The production, directed by Kent Nichols, exudes the energy of a spectacle. It juggles a bricolage of post-modern and traditional performance styles: non-linear narration, actors playing multiple roles, contemporary dialect, and pseudo-bible-speak (“and he sayeth unto Him”). Nichols and the production team mostly succeed in this difficult feat, presenting a show that reflects on mortality, family, and the act of story itself.
Cain’s insightful, witty, but sometime overripe text dominates the stage. His moralizing and ruminating asides occasionally clutter the play, but these lapses are eclipsed by a procession of crowd-hushing poignant moments (as when Cain’s dying father asks his son to read to him, claiming, “I just want to look at you, Billy”) and of riotously funny comedic ones (like Cain’s mother leaping from her rocking chair when her football team wins).
Linda Gehringer steals the show in her role as the enchanting Mary Cain, the author’s hilarious, terminally ill mother who watches CNN and college football. Cain seems to have expected this (subtitling the drama “A play for an older actress”), and gave Mary most of the best lines, particularly about her acclimation to dying of cancer. “Seems like a shame to have gone through all this pain and not get better,” she says. Aaron Blakely and Leo Marks play the author’s brother and father, respectively. Both give affecting performances and confidently play multiple roles. Tyler Pierce deserves good marks for playing the exhausting role of Billy (the author), spending most of the play onstage and serving admirably as a sort of Greek chorus, explaining and reflecting on events. Cain never fully realizes or motivates Billy’s need to theatrically re-create his mother’s death, but Pierce charms the audience nevertheless with his constant and buoyant, though oblique, attention.
How to Write a New Book for the Bible functions as a meditation about the ritual of story telling, a nuance Nichols and his production team make salient. A scene may begin with the set in one configuration, but then the characters, who are aware of the play, argue over Cain’s verisimilitude, and by the end of their argument, the stage is reconfigured, though no one seemed to have moved anything. Scott Bradley’s set, though largely minimalist and utilitarian—a chest, a chair, a rocking chair and a door—is complemented by a few items that are never directly used but hover above as an omnipresent metaphor for story. Chandeliers float next to a stained glass window, and shards of mirror on transparent string reflect jagged patterns through the blues and greens of the glass. Here Nichols’ staging and Bradley’s set comment on the transformation inherent to a story in the telling of it. A story may function as a mirror, but that mirror is broken and casts its light haphazardly through colored glass, morphing the image, changing the story. How to Write a New Book for the Bible is rich with this kind of subtle symbolism and meaning, which long and pleasantly lingers.
How to Write a New Book for the Bible plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theater until November 20.