Every creative work is at least a little autobiographical, and rarely more so than in Round House Theatre’s newest production. The thread that playwright Bill Cain uses to weave together his story — narrated by a man named Bill, about a family called Cain — is very nearly transparent. We don’t merely notice the man behind How To Write A New Book For The Bible; we see his life and the lives of his loved ones reflected and writ large, into a sizable tapestry sewn of many small, sad moments.
Cain’s play marks incoming Artistic Director Ryan Rilette’s first time directing in his new digs at Round House, and his choice of plays nicely evokes that ebb and flow we feel once we start pondering what it means, over time, to feel at home. When Bill, played by the quietly funny Ray Ficca, brings us right through his front door to meet his mother Mary (Marybeth Wise), his father Pete (Mitchell Hébert) and his brother Paul (Danny Gavigan), he leads not with the bitterness or lingering frustration characteristic of many retrospectives, but rather with an unshakeable sense of fidelity and tenderness. Right away, his house is our house.
It’s also, in a subdued way, the house of the Lord. Bill Cain, like his real-life namesake, is not only a writer but a Jesuit priest, and true to his faith he finds ample opportunity to preach, modestly and with a charming self-deprecation, on the lessons of the Bible refracted through the struggles of his family, particularly with regard to aging and death. Across two acts and an extensive, decade-jumping series of scenes, Cain tracks his own rocky passage from young son into the primary caretaker for his aging mother, whose arrival into her ninth decade on earth brings a hefty dose of physical and emotional pains. “I believe all writing is prayer,” says Bill, in one of his numerous asides to the audience, and it’s clear he’s been doing a lot of both.
That Mary, who appears as an 82-year-old for much of the play, is portrayed by the much younger and still-spry Wise, may seem odd during the play’s early scenes. But the timelessness of Mary, and the pleasant flux of emotions and memories she elicits from her sons, allows us to comfortably see Wise, as well as Hébert, at multiple points in their lives simultaneously. Wise and Hébert both make some brilliantly subtle actor work of aging from scene to scene, but even when parked in middle-aged neutral they are immutably themselves, charged both by youth and by experience. In short, they’re dream parents, forgiving and challenging in equally measured, healthful doses.
Cain plays an elegiac strain at times, to be sure, but the show pumps with love and living-room warmth. One might suspect a show that reveres parents with such an uncomplicated air to deflate by evening’s end. And although one could well argue that the play’s two-hours-plus running time strikes a few overly-indulgent notes here and there, Cain lets his understated vignettes speak for themselves.
Aided by a few nicely-cast golden rays from lighting designer Colin K. Bills and a set made of high, translucent walls from scenic designer Daniel Conway, we catch all four family members, at various times, in their prime of their lives.
Memories of childhood, played young with touching silliness by the well-matched Ficca and Gavigan, lead into latter-day episodes of sadness, worry, and pent-up indignity between the elderly Mary and the well-meaning, occasionally hapless Bill. Pete becomes ill. Paul goes to war. Fights break out. Rules are broken. Family members flee, travel, and grudgingly return.
How to Write a New Book about the Bible
Closes May 5, 2013
Round House Theatre – Bethesda
4545 East-West Highway
2 hours. 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Bill’s choice recollections, all poignant, emphasize this truth — and his family’s ubiquitous, monosyllabic first names add to the Old Testament flavor of this parable-making — but everyone has a family to account for. Our most enduring blessings may be most easily ignored. But what, Cain argues, could be more worthy of our attention than the everyday?
It’s hard to wish for a more appealing group of four actors, and Rilette works well with them. While running the San Francisco Bay Area’s Marin Theatre Company Rilette produced the Cain plays Equivocation and 9 Circles — two titles DC audiences will remember from this past season’s productions at Arena Stage and Forum Theatre, respectively — but this slow-simmering meditation is something far more restrained.
Equivocation took us to Elizabethan England, 9 Circles to a modern wartime prison cell. But there are only two circles in How To Write A New Book For The Bible — Bill Cain and Bill Cain — and they’re almost perfectly concentric. The candor he brings to the eventual passing of his parents, and the fervor he puts into remembering them, refines a relatively homey concept into a wistful and quietly funny evening of family drama.
How To Write A New Book For The Bible by Bill Cain . Directed by Ryan Rilette . featuring Ray Ficca, Danny Gavigan, Mitchell Hébert, and MaryBeth Wise . Creative team: scenic designer: Daniel Conway, costume designer: Rosemary Pardee, lighting designer: Colin K. Bills, sound designer: Eric Shimelonis, props master: Andrea Moore, assistant director Robby Lufty, and stage manager Erin C. Patrick . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.
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