It would seem logical that a play about mortality would resonate more with a Boomer audience than with people in their twenties and thirties. But that’s apparently not the case for Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible, an autobiographical play about a Jesuit priest who is consigned to care for his elderly, cancer-stricken mother during the last six months of her life. Two thirtysomething women who attended the press opening at Berkeley Rep with their senior citizen mothers came away with the same reaction: “Mom was totally stoic. I was balling.”
Perhaps that’s a generation rift. But maybe it also says something about the potency of Cain’s writing, or the undeniable power of lead actors Linda Gehringer and Tyler Pierce, who play mother and son, respectively, in this darkly emotional world premiere. Directed by Kent Nicholson, How to Write a New Book oscillates between the present tense and flashbacks of Bill’s childhood. The point, theoretically, is to contextualize Cain’s maternal bond, show the role that religion played in his relatively pious Catholic family, and make good on the play’s title. After all, what is the Bible but a doctrinal text built on ordinary stories of ordinary families? And why can’t an ordinary writer make his own contribution?
Granted, not every theatergoer shares the playwright’s devoutness. So in a way it’s incumbent on the viewer to suspend his own belief system for two hours, if only to better get into the lead character’s head. And to do that, it helps to know a little bit about the real Bill Cain. Like the Bill in this play, he’s a priest and a writer who’s enjoying a patch of success late in life — Cain just won the prestigious Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Award two years in a row, which is the biggest honor that a new play can receive in this country, aside from a Tony. (Unlike a Tony, a Steinberg applies to works that didn’t necessarily appear on Broadway.) And like Bill, he cared for his mother as she deteriorated, documenting all the doctor visits, domestic spats, excruciating decisions, frustrations, and revelations in his diary, which evidently became an outline for this production.
It’s a nakedly personal account that ultimately veers into the universal: Just as Steinbeck’s East of Eden was one of the best books ever written about fathers and sons, Cain’s How to Write a New Book may become the authoritative story on a son’s relationship to his mother.
Pierce and Gehringer create such a believable dynamic that it’s hard not to get over-invested in their storyline. At first it’s funny: Mary Cain dodders around the house in a bathrobe and powder gray hair, chiding her scholarly son and refusing to use a cane or follow the advice of a physical therapist, even though she’s wracked by pain and unable to grip a teacup. Bill is a frustrated writer, annoyed by his mother’s surliness, her loud television shows, and the fact that he’s stuck in Syracuse, New York, where the main “cultural event” of the year is themed around fried chicken, and the local book store clerk doesn’t know Shakespeare. And, unfortunately, if you’ve spent any length of time trapped in upstate New York, you’ll find that’s a fairly accurate characterization. The humor reaches an apex at the same moment that things start to fall apart — when mom and Bill find themselves squabbling over, of all things, what brand of butter to buy. At that moment mother and child have finally, affirmatively reversed roles.
How to Write a New Book is bifurcated in two acts: The first is largely about the Cain family; the role that Christianity played in Bill’s upbringing (both parents prayed, everyone attended Sunday service, and Bill had interminable arguments with his father (Leo Marks) about the merits of Darwin; and Bill’s estrangement from his brother Paul (Aaron Blakely), which becomes an unnecessary subplot — there’s a moving, if somewhat unearned scene in which they visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall together.
The second act, which is far more engrossing, is specifically about Bill and his mother. It’s written in a more patient and vigilant style than the first part, which was larded with tangential points and elliptical language. And it showcases two superb lead actors. Gehringer is so snippy and charming that she makes Mary Cain shine, even toward the end of her decay; Pierce shows that uncomfortable mix of guilt, grief, self-remonstration, numbness, and tangible relief that Bill must have felt after watching his mother go. Scott Bradley’s floating set pieces — which dangle from the ceiling when they’re not anchored onstage — make it seem as though Bill and Mary are marooned between worlds.
Perhaps that sense of placelessness is what saves Cain’s play from being just about eldercare, or just about faith, or just about human expiration. Maybe that’s also why it appeals to young adults who are just beginning to confront their own mortality. How to Write a New Book illustrates these issues vividly. For a play that hinges on death, it will surely have a very long life.