As South Coast Repertory's overview notes, budding playwrights are advised, "Write what you know." Bill Cain is no neophyte — he's been at it for several decades — but he definitely writes what he knows, and then some, in "How to Write a New Book for the Bible," now on stage at SCR.
The names aren't changed to protect the innocent here. His narrator also is named Bill Cain and, like the playwright, he's a Jesuit priest. One can only assume that the rest of his onstage family — late father, terminally ill mother and war hero older brother — likewise fit the pattern accurately.
With a priest for a playwright and the word "Bible" in the play's title, one also might assume that religion plays a major role in the story. Not so. The narrator's vocation is presented only peripherally in this compelling memory play structured along the lines of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "The Glass Menagerie," only with ample elements of comic relief.
The play originated in Berkeley and later was produced in Seattle before taking up residence at SCR. The director, Kent Nicholson, and three of his four cast members all were involved in the two earlier productions.
The resultant familiarity by these performers with the play's mood and with their fellow actors pays dynamic dividends in this latest incarnation. It's a rich, robust production replete with honestly expressed moments of love and frustration.
While the play's centerpiece is the young priest-narrator, its focal point is the remarkable Linda Gehringer, who has graced the SCR stage no fewer than 17 times over the years. She portrays the narrator's widowed and terminally ill mother — appearing frail and elderly, yet possessed with an age-defying energy and determination not to "go gentle into the good night," as Dylan Thomas once advised. It is, as might be expected from this actress, a superb performance.
Stepping into the playwright's persona, Tyler Pierce sets the stage skillfully, moving the other actors around like chess pieces, while chafing at his mother's supposed preference for his older sibling. Pierce delivers a strongly articulate performance calculated to leave its imprint on both head and heart.
Aaron Blakeley is equally powerful as the older brother, Paul, an athlete who enlists in the Army and serves meritoriously in Vietnam. Blakeley is particularly effective in a scene where he visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and is overcome with grief that he survived when many of his comrades perished.
Completing the cast as the father and several other characters, some female, Jeff Biehl displays an admirable versatility and adaptability. Biehl, the only "newcomer" to the troupe, fits perfectly into the mixture.
Since this is a "memory play," set designer Scott Bradley's visual backdrop is fragmented as well, with set pieces and props appearing only when needed and vanishing once the scene is completed. To simulate the nation's capital, for instance, a small rendering of the Washington Monument pops up in the background during Paul's grieving scene.
Playwright Cain noted, in an interview published in SCR's program, that "I have a huge sense of the blessing of my parents' lives being passed to the next generation."
It is this overriding reverence and familial love which permeates "How to Write a New Book for the Bible," a compelling and ultimately gratifying experience at South Coast Repertory.
If You Go
What: "How to Write a New Book for the Bible"
Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday until Nov. 18
Cost: $20 to $70