If ever a play proved one can reach the universal through particulars, it’s Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” splendidly executed by South Coast Rep by way of Berkeley and Seattle. Aided by a candid diary kept while his mother was dying of liver cancer, Cain fashions a collage of everyday life which keeps inviting you to mull over the interactions among your own loved ones. Watching it is as pleasurable as leafing through a stranger’s chaotically organized, but page for page smile-inducing, intimate scrapbook.
It’s hard to imagine a more frankly autobiographical tragicomedy. Even “Long Day’s Journey into Night” imposes a thin veneer of fiction over the haunted O’Neills, but here Cain writes “Bill Cain” (Tyler Pierce) and his little nuclear unit in what seems like photorealistic detail: a fraught encounter with a Halloween pumpkin; the mysterious Vietnam service of quiet, intense brother Paul (Aaron Blakely); boisterous family squabbles laid out blow by pointed blow.
Character and author Bill are Jesuit priests. We don’t learn much about Cain’s vocation (is he saving that for another play?), but his priestly yearnings are central to all this reminiscence. Recognizing the Bible as first and foremost a family story – cf. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, not to mention God as father of the family of man – he’s determined to look inward to discover meaning.
“Do we matter?” he keeps wondering. God’s eye may be on the sparrow, but is it also focused on the everyday joys, quarrels and sorrows of four little people in Syracuse, N.Y.?
Cain and helmer Kent Nicholson give God, and the earthly audience, plenty to attend to with interest. The kaleidoscopic structure keeps us on our toes, jumbling chronology and even going into sheer fantasy to bring out parallels and patterns across time. Multiple perspectives provide more delight, as all four Cains periodically step forward to share their own interpretations and continue their bickering before a live audience. (And Billy – in Pierce’s hands a delightfully mournful kvetcher – almost always gets the worst of it.)
Scott Bradley’s set is itself a stunning collage, bits and pieces suspended or dropped as the Cains’ minds conjure them. Alexander Nichols’ lighting seamlessly pulls us into and out of recollection, and Callie Floor’s costumes are both period specific and effortlessly reflective of character.
Pierce and Blakely have got their brother act down to a science in this third production in a row, joined by the excellent Jeff Biehl as the ebullient, slightly remote dad (and numerous other characters of various ages and genders). And Linda Gehringer’s mom is simply a wonder, deeply physical and emotionally true in showing us the psychological complexity of a soul whom no one dare dismiss as an “ordinary housewife.” To Cain, nothing about people is ordinary, a lesson Nicholson’s cast has absorbed into its bones.
Cain’s Biblically centered conceits, when all is said and done, seem somewhat forced. The joy in having Bill raise his hands in benediction to intone new plot developments – “And lo, Mary called her elder son” – diminishes through repetition.
On the other hand, if that’s the hanger Cain needed on which to drape such a warm, affecting skein of memories, it would be the height of ingratitude to object.