The Jesuit playwright, Bill Cain S.J. has been on quite a roll. It had been almost twwnty years between Cain's first play, Stand-Up Tragedy and his next, Equivocation which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009 ( and then went on to productions in Los Angeles, Seattle, Mill Valley, Washington, D.C. and New York). In 2010 I saw the world premiere of another Cain play, 9 Circles which had its premiere at the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley, California. Amazingly, these two plays won Cain the American Theater Critics' Association's coveted Steinberg award-- the first time a playwright received the award in two consecutive years. Now, a new play, How to Write a New Book For the Bible had its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. It will soon move on the Seattle Repertory Theater.
How to Write a New Book For the Bible is highly autographical. It derives from a diary Cain kept during his father and mother's final illnesses and death. In one sense, it is an ordinary tale about an ordinary family ( the relation between Cain's mother, Mary and her husband Pete and theirs to him and his to them and to his older brother, Paul). Cain calls it a comedy ( for sure, there are lots of laughs) but it is a comedy about what could and can be very sad: accompanying a loved one as they are dying.
The dramturg at Berkeley Rep noted that, at the outset, she was a bit wary of a play with such a title, afraid of preachiness, afraid of what a Jesuit priest might write. No need. Although it does talk freely about the faith ( ordinary and typically Catholic) of the protagonists, it raises other interesting and large questions. It is easy enough, I suppose, for us to believe in a God who created and sustained the world. It is much harder for us to really believe in a God who actually cares about our day to day dramas, fights, sense of frustration, joys and petty plans. Somehow, it is easier to believe God loves the whole world than that he loves me, warts and all.
The play depicts sibling rivalries between Bill and his brother Paul. The older brother was more of an athlete. Bill more the nerdy one. But Paul keeps claiming Bill got favored. It also shows the deep love ( yet fights over Pete sometimes drinking that extra and third scotch or forgetting to buy flowers for Mary) between father and wife. I was touched the the wonderful scenes between Bill who took off work to care for his dying mother and his mother. I have a close friend who is now dying of pancreatic cancer. He knows it and is not in denial. But he told me he does not want people to think that the only thing in his life everyday is his impending death. He still enjoys a television show or wonders at a rainbow. Cain does a msterful job of showing how his mother not only coped with pain and dying but also her other choices, life-giving choices, in the days she still had left. One funny scene involves Bill discovering ( to his disapproval and dismay) that his dying mother goes off to the batharoom to sneak a cigarette. He upbraids her and she responds: " Didn't you tell me to enjoy as much of the time and life left to me?". I wondered how well the joke about the sneaked smokes went over in self-righteous Berkeley which has actually banned any smoking anywhere ( even outside) in its commercial areas. Cain did not always draw himself in a flattering light. One of the charms of the play is that we keep laughing, even as we know two of the main characters are doomed to an impending death.
Just after seeing How to Write Your Own Book of the Bible, I went to see the new Werner Hertzog extraordinary documentary, Into the Abyss, which is also about dying--by execution in Rick Perry's Texas. One of Hertzog's interviewees, a former employee at Huntsville Prison where the executions take place and himself a former executioner, now foreswore his job, at the loss of a pension. He is now against the death penalty. In one scene, he asks that telling question: " What are you going to do with the dash?". Naturally, at first, one does not know exactly what such a question means. Then the questioner explains it. Look on your tombstone: there will be the date of your birth, a dash and then the date of your death. What counts is what you do with that dash. Even those who are dying, after all, still have some of that dash.
I suspect the title of the play is about writing a book of the bible which includes us and our family, our daily concerns and failures, as well as successes and the love that propels our lives. We need to find room for that in the bible or it becomes just an old fusty family bible on the shelf, stories about other people and other times. When asked what he hoped people would come away from his very touching play when they see it, Cain responded: " I hope they walk away with a great sense of joy, walk away carrying less fear about how life ends. My parents both gave off light as they died, and they found a way to make their deaths a summation of the gooness they had received and given for their whole lives. The play is very funny. And I think the reason for that is my parents understood that death does not negate life, but it's one of the things in life. I hope the play works as a celebration of all the darkness and light and not just some of it."
When asked how being a priest affects his playwriting and vice versa, Cain responds: " I'm a Jesuit priest and the Jesuits weren't founded to live in a cloister or a monastery. We're supposed to go into the world, find the presence of God there and celebrate it. I'd say that was a pretty good description of what all of us in the theater do as well.. The jobs of writer and priest--as " Bill " says in the play--are closely related. In both, you point and say: " Look, look there. That person you haven'g noticed--he, she matters!"
Remarkably, one came away from this touching and lovely play hoping that, like Mary in the play, we might weep tears not just of sorrow but of gratitude and joy for the gifts we have received in life. In the play, Bill catches his mother weeping and presumes it is because of sadness and pain but she responds: it is for all the goodness.
Most of the time, one also comes away from a play discussing what you liked or did not like in it, what worked or did not work, how the actors did ( at Berkeley Rep very well, especially a stand-out performance by Linda Gehringer as Mary and Tyler Pierce as Bill). One can only wonder at Tyler's dilemma of playing the playwright who was there in front of him for rehearsals.! Interesting enough, the most common experience of those leaving thn play was to come away talking about losing a loved one, a parent or sibling, and remembeing not only the sadnesses but the good moments, too. As the play shows and most of us have experienced in our own lives, often the vulnerability of dying or sickeness opens up to a new kind of candor and truth which can be not only rfresshing and realer than ordinary real but might just stay with us for the rest of our lives.