Family matters in Bill Cain’s 'How to Write a New Book for the Bible' 

click to enlarge Touching and funny: From left, Aaron Blakely, Tyler Pierce, Linda Gehringer and Leo Marks star in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy photo) - TOUCHING AND FUNNY: FROM LEFT, AARON BLAKELY, TYLER PIERCE, LINDA GEHRINGER AND LEO MARKS STAR IN THE WORLD PREMIERE OF BILL CAIN’S “HOW TO WRITE A NEW BOOK FOR THE BIBLE” AT BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATRE. (COURTESY PHOTO)
  • Touching and funny: From left, Aaron Blakely, Tyler Pierce, Linda Gehringer and Leo Marks star in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy photo)
  • Touching and funny: From left, Aaron Blakely, Tyler Pierce, Linda Gehringer and Leo Marks star in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy photo)

Going home is never easy for adult children. According to Bill, the central character in Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” even Jesus couldn’t do it. But Bill has no choice. His mother’s dying, and it’s up to him to care for her in her final days.

Cain’s luminous and largely autobiographical play, which opened in its world-premiere production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre last week, is a thoughtful, funny, often poignant and ultimately redemptive exploration of the ties that bind parents and children and the narratives that express their common history.

Directed by Kent Nicholson, the 2½-hour production emerges a moving, universal meditation on familial relationships.

Like Cain, Bill (the excellent Tyler Pierce) is a Jesuit priest and writer. As he returns home to care for his ailing mother, Mary (Linda Gehringer), an acerbic matriarch recently diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer, he begins to write the story of his family in Biblical style, with all the “thus begats” and “unto the parents” intact. 

His is not a tragic family — the Cains, he explains, are fully “functional” — but they’ve had their share of sorrows, and Mary’s diagnosis is just the latest challenge.

As the play loops forward and back in time, Cain alternates between the current indignities of her illness — struggles with food, pills, tests and doctor’s visits — and key incidents in the Cains’ past.

In scenes with his distant brother Paul (Aaron Blakely), gentle father Pete (Leo Marks), and the indomitable Mary, he revisits childhood traumas, family rituals, marital struggles and a pivotal road trip, building a cohesive line back to the present.

It’s a beautifully crafted script by Cain, whose earlier works include the brilliant Shakespearean period play “Equivocation” and the Iraq war drama “9 Circles,” and Nicholson’s staging is aptly spare and affecting. 

Scott Bradley’s fluid set of rich Craftsman woods and stained glass glows in Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting; Callie Floor’s costumes are comfortably contemporary.

Nicholson elicits strong performances from the cast. Pierce’s affable Bill blends comic exasperation with dramatic depth. Blakely’s Paul simmers under his detached exterior, and Marks is soulful in several touching scenes as Pete. 

Still, it’s Gehringer’s Mary who carries the show. Built of equal parts grace, rage, intelligence and steely strength, she creates a portrait of dignity for the ages.


THEATER REVIEW

How to Write a New Book for the Bible

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Where: 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 20

Tickets: $14.50 to $73

Contact: (510) 647-2949; www.berkeleyrep.org

About The Author

Georgia Rowe

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