Arts & Events

Eye From the Aisle: Rep’s HOW to Write a NEW Book for the Bible—too funny, often too tragic to abide

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday October 18, 2011 - 09:09:00 AM
Linda Gehringer as Mary
Linda Gehringer as Mary

How to Write a NEW Book for the Bible, now playing its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, is written by a recently successful playwright Bill Cain, S.J. Many of you of The Faith or not will recognize the letters: Cain is also a Jesuit priest.

It seems like a play written by a priest. It is about ministering to the sick, about keeping watch, about the most profoundly prolonged last rites as he moves in with his cancer-riddled, pain-oppressed, dying mother to care for her in her last days.  

There is an equation about tragedy that has to do with distance. The night I attended there was a contingent of young people in the audience. I venture that it may have been more digestible for them than for much of the elder crowd.  

If you’ve ever gone home for a while, or had to clean out an apartment of a departed loved one, the found pictures and mementos bring on strong reverie. That’s the substance of this play. That, and elevating to a sacrament the tragedy of a domestic, ordinary life and its inevitable, terrible end. 

It brought to mind Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” wherein the lashes and blows just kept falling incessantly for two hours. I remember as a sensitive child weeping at the Stations of the Cross, a Good Friday Catholic ritual which documents in detail the last excruciating 15 -odd hours of my childhood hero Jesus. When I saw the movie, wincing at each lash and pang, I just wished for it to be over and for peace to be bestowed. The same pleading went on in my head from the extraordinarily believable performance of Linda Gehringer. 

We see Mother Mary’s endurance and dignity replete with her flashbacks to her late husband Pete who was a great dancer, but it is through the eye of Billy the Priest and Writer we see the family and its culture. His diary-based detail of her pain and decline, of the doctors, of her fugues, her medicines, their spats, his frustrations, are played against his remembrance of a childhood in an honest if demanding, loving family who never went to bed mad. Their names, Peter, Paul, and Mary, are appropriately biblical, and are ironically the actual names of his parents and brother to whom he dedicates the play. The metaphor is that every family is holy and legendary and should have its history recorded as a lasting commemoration and lesson. This comes from a celibate man who will not be continuing his lineage. Plato opined that we get our immortality by communing with great thoughts, through our progeny, and through leaving works after us; we childless must opt for two out of three.  

It is sweet. It is tragic. It is often droll and occasionally belly-laugh funny. And it is too awful to sit through. In the midst of the second act, I wept uncontrollably, vainly trying to stifle my sobs with hands pressed to face so as not to disturb my neighbors. Ordinarily, my urges to flee the theatre are based on tedium, but if I had been actually on the aisle, I think I would have slipped out in desperation. Perhaps my own situation and guilt and memories intrude. Perhaps this is better viewed from the distant perspective of a younger person. But in the lobby afterwards, others talked about the impact and the power. The word is excruciating, as in crucify, which comes from crucifare which means “to torture.”  

The acting is superb with Tyler Pierce as a buff and hunky Billy, a priest/playwright/screenwriter with a thick head of hair, narrating our journey into the hell of cancer. Leo Marks and Aaron Blakely play multiple parts of father, brother, doctor, hairdresser, and more, with ease and aplomb.  

Scott Bradley’s minimal and imaginistic set is just right for this epic tale. Most of the set is suspended in plain sight though a little above, and descends at intervals to dress the stage—just like everyone’s family history—and is thus a functional metaphor. Alexander Nichol’s lighting is noteworthy, with insets of up-light in a moving fraternal scene in a pilgrimage to The Wall in D.C. with his Viet Nam veteran brother Paul. Director Kent Nicholson sustains the energy with imaginative blocking and fluid changes, and handles well the reprised, potentially difficult ending. 

Cain has twice been awarded the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics prize in successive years, a unique record. He won for “Equivocation,” his speculative history about Shakespeare’s demand commission by Elizabeth I’s government to write a contemporary play about the Gunpowder Plot, and “9 Circles”—after Dante’s work—about the Iraq war and prisoners, another form of hell, which premiered at the Marin Theatre Company also under Nichols direction. 


At Berkeley Repertory Theatre 

Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley 

(510) 647-2949 – 


Through November 20, 2011 


Directed by Kent Nicholson, set by Scott Bradley, costumes by Callie Floor (costumes), lighting by Alexander V. Nichols, and sound by Matt Starritt. 


WITH: Aaron Blakely (Paul), Linda Gehringer (Mary), Leo Marks (Pete), and Tyler Pierce (Bill) 



John A. McMullen II is a member of SDC, SFBATCC, and ATCA, with an MFA from CMU (abcdefg!) Editing by E J Dunne.