Peter, Paul, Mary…and Bill? Almost your typical cast of a Biblical saga, these characters are not actually the personalities you’d find in either the New or Old Testament. As seen in Steinberg Award-winning playwright Bill Cain’s newest, autobiographical work, “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” the cast of Cain’s family provides a modern view on the perception and functionality of a family.
The world premiere of Cain’s play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre tackles the difficult but universal search for the meaning of life. Leading us through this quest is the stage character of Bill Cain, who, himself, finds it difficult to believe that the man upstairs is interested in everything we humans do — and he’s a Jesuit priest.
The Cain family is especially made to deal with this question of significance when they are made constantly aware of their own mortality — whether while being faced with family deaths, loved ones in war or the trials and tribulations of maintaining a marriage.
“How to Write” does give us plenty of insight into Bill Cain’s writing genius. The show exudes a kind of wit and tact that is so specific to Cain’s actual family’s humor and personality, acquainting viewers with the quirks, pet peeves, depth and shallowness of one family’s past. Cain lovingly creates characters with textured dialogue, from comically spiteful fights impassioned with shouts of “Go shit in your hat!” to fictional Bill’s (played by Tyler Pierce) bare and soul-revealing Neil Simon-esque monologues.
What’s even more fascinating is that Cain achieves such visceral moments without necessarily re-inventing the story of a family, but by being so willing to share the beautiful and harrowing experiences unique to his own family.
The Cain household is made complete with the detailed characterizations of the Cain family. Every loving glance, chuckle, exasperated sigh and screaming rants makes the Cain clan vividly real. Stand-out Leo Marks, provides chameleonic performances as not only Bill’s father, Pete, but as a doctor, chiropractor and a sassy, female hairdresser. He dons each part so effortlessly, even while jumping from role to role within seconds.
Playing the role of mother and tireless inspiration to her family, Linda Gehringer exudes vitality and strength as the character of Mary Cain. One moment she is able to provoke incessant laughter from her family, next she reduces not only her stage-son, but the audience as well, to tears with just one look of understanding.
Director Kent Nicholson’s own brilliance is apparent in his stage direction of choreographed naturalism on the ingenious, changeable set designed by Scott Bradley. Rounding out the stellar tech cast is lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols, providing effective luminescence with just a line of strategically placed foot lights. The actors move about the Cain household of suspended set pieces and floating lights, weaving in and out of time.
Cain stresses throughout the show that for a writer it’s imperative to “write what you know” and indeed, that is what he does. There is a joy that is communicated through “How to Write” that proves Cain’s newest work is capable of succeeding on any stage in the future.