Parents give us life. In return, if chronology is respected, we watch them die.
Out of this human trial, Bill Cain, author of “Equivocation” and “9 Circles,” has created an autobiographical drama about the last year of his mother’s life. A time of illness, old family grievances, a mountain of love and the challenge of coming to terms.
It’s not easy to criticize a play like “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” now at South Coast Repertory in a production directed by Kent Nicholson and starring SCR favorite Linda Gehringer as the dying matriarch. The writing is suffused with the ache of letting go, a grieving process compounded by mysteries, spiritual and psychological, that will never be resolved.
But the work cannot be scored an artistic success. Cain has not transformed his experience into something lastingly emblematic. The play falls short on the level of character and dramatic development — a sign that the subject is still too close to home.
For the personal to be made resonantly public, emotional distance is required. The playwright’s interest in his material is natural enough, but he has yet to figure out a way to make other people interested. Audience members may well up at the end of “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” but the tears they shed will largely be over the sad fact of parental loss. Cain’s specific story, at once overwritten and under-imagined, isn’t what breaks our hearts.
Cain is not only a playwright but a Jesuit priest, and his drama often has the sententious ring of a homily. “I believe all writing is prayer,” is a characteristic line from a play that wants to take an exegetical shortcut to profundity. Rather than building meaning the old fashioned way (through plot, character and language), Cain offers it up in sermonizing commentary, spoken directly by Bill (an appealing Tyler Pierce), the writer-priest protagonist and narrator, to the SCR congregation — I mean, audience.
The title suggests the work’s pulpit tone. Bill, to his credit, preaches a gospel of inclusive empathy and acceptance. Unlike the hectoring, ill-tempered priests who darken contemporary fiction, this man of the cloth is more like a cross between a Buddhist monk and a creative writing instructor, with a touch of social worker thrown in.
“People keep trying to turn the Bible into a rule book, but it’s not,” Bill explains. “It’s the story of a family. If you want to see God — says the Book — look at your family story. The specific, unrepeatable details. Really look. And don’t just look at the good stuff.”
Beyond the choking scent of incense, the trouble is that Mary, the maternal object of study here, isn’t a particularly fascinating theatrical character. Though she is complicated in her familial relationships, contradictory in her mix of staunch independence and loving neediness and confounding in the secrets she is determined to keep and give away, she seems rather insubstantial next to the ailing mothers of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” and Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County.”
Cain is attracted to Mary’s ordinariness, and he clearly wants to show us the extraordinary qualities that lie within everyday folk. A noble mission — but not necessarily an ideal one for the stage. Chekhov’s characters often come with undistinguished résumés, but they have theatrical stature. Something is boiling up inside them.
Mary is an 82-year-old who is dying of cancer. The end of life is inherently dramatic, laden with significance, an original story reaching its final page. But the play, unfolding on Scott Bradley’s clean, abstract set, goes back and forth in time in an effort to tell a larger tale that Cain is still undecided about.
Rather than fully dramatizing his family, he switches gears and writes about the nature of family, the importance of this kind of investigation and the incredible difficulty of finding truth. (Neither Aaron Blakely, who plays Bill’s brother, nor Jeff Biehl, who plays Bill’s father, can sort out roles that are essentially psychological skeins.)
Had Cain committed more to his meta-narrative, the work might have been livelier, but his dramatic instincts are ultimately more earnest. The result is a hybrid effort that veers into sentimentality and, perhaps reflecting the playwright’s own difficulty in moving on, doesn’t ever seem to want to end.
Gehringer gives the kind of audience-pleasing performance that has surface charm but not much depth. She engages in what I’d call “character acting,” a display of tricks and ticks that doesn’t preclude poignancy but rarely seems credible. This often occurs when there’s a problem in the character construction. Mary no doubt lived fully in life, but on the page she’s an over-complicated sketch, and that is a heavy burden for any actor, even one as normally dependable as Gehringer.
“How to Write a New Book for the Bible.” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Nov. 18. $29-$70. (714) 708-5555 or https://www.scr.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes