Opening Nights: How to Write a New Book for the Bible

A matriarch's slow fade.

Bill Cain's autobiographical play about caring for his mother during her last six months of life is both a miracle and a mess. Despite defying nearly every law of playwriting, it nonetheless holds the audience rapt from start to finish. (Or to several finishes, since there's a whole series of unintentional multiple endings.) The feat is the more remarkable considering that Cain, a Jesuit priest and author of the Elizabethan-era political thriller Equivocation, comes from "a functional family" (according to the playbill), normally considered a disadvantage for an autobiographical dramatist (see O'Neill, Williams, etc.). Indeed, the charmingly candid (and not overly religious) Cain family lives by a handful of emotionally healthy commandments like "Never leave a fight before it's over." Arriving prepackaged from Berkeley Rep, where the play debuted last fall, the cast of four is so tight you'd think they had decades of history together.

The incandescent Linda Gehringer plays Mary Cain, a woman described by second son Bill (Tyler Pierce) as variously being practical, strong, and unimaginative—she has dreams about ironing shirts. (Aaron Blakely plays the elder son and some incidental roles.) Scenes from the past weave through the later caretaking scenes as she succumbs to illness, all rendered with breathtaking specificity. From the smashed pumpkin that Mary's husband Pete (Leo Marks) pins together with toothpicks to the orchids that "all the other ladies had" (an emblem of her deprived marriage), the play steps from the quotidian to the eternal. The dull business of dying and the daily rhythms of family life are transformed into something part myth, part religion, part vital manure.

Directed by Kent Nicholson, How to Write provides a satisfying mingling of the eternal with the everyday. (Scott Bradley's lovely set suggests suspension between the two realms with lamps, chandeliers, stained glass, and a fractured mirror dangling in the air.) It's a humble, sweeping, and deeply personal processing of the universe to which Cain invites us. With only a few performances left, you'd better move fast and accept the invitation before this odd, unruly gem disappears.

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