By Bill Cain. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, April 26. Continues until May 25
A Jesuit priest as well as a playwright, Bill Cain can’t resist telling us what to think.
In his autobiographical script, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, the central character, Bill Cain, leads us through the death of his mother, Mary. Rather than trusting us to draw our own conclusions about the play’s unfolding events and relationships, Bill addresses the audience directly—and preaches. “All writing is a prayer,” he intones. “We are mysteries to ourselves and one another,” he notes. Apparently assuming that we’re going to thank him for this, he adds, humbly, that being a writer is “a way of life. You notice things. You point them out.”
How to Write a New Book for the Bible would be much more engaging if Cain pointed out fewer things and underlined them less thoroughly. It would also be better if he told a more coherent story. Act 1 mostly looks at Bill’s combative relationship with Mary. Bill’s dead dad, Pete, lurks in the background, and so does Bill’s all-American big brother, Paul. Then, without much preparation, Paul takes over. In a flashback, he serves in the Vietnam War, which traumatizes him, then he visits artist Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., so that he can have a quick, explanatory catharsis—and so that the act can end on an emotional note.
Act 2, which gets down to the nitty-gritty of death, is more focused, but Cain tacks on an ending that imagines the afterlife as the emotional equivalent of a box of chocolates.
I have no doubt that Cain loves his family, but his emphasis on sentimentality, easy entertainment, and philosophical quick fixes yields far more chicken soup than I can swallow.
Fortunately, there are some strong performances in director Morris Ertman’s production. Erla Faye Forsyth, who seems to have been playing old women since she was in her 20s, unapologetically inhabits Mary’s toughness, which, of course makes Mary’s playfulness more charming and her vulnerability more touching. For his part, Anthony F. Ingram, who plays Bill, is unafraid of his character’s petty selfishness. And Ingram brings an active intelligence to the stage that’s always a pleasure to watch.
As big brother Paul, Daniel Arnold plays anger on just a couple of notes for too long but, when Paul cracks at the Vietnam Memorial, the transparency and detail of Arnold’s performance make the passage genuinely moving. Byron Noble provides a steady presence as Pete and a number of other characters.
Still, if I wanted a sermon, I’d go to church.