At the Seattle Rep, a personal play by a priest about family

Jan 15, 2012

The latest play at Seattle Repertory Theatre is called "How To Write A New Book For The Bible." It's about a priest who comes home to take care of his dying mother.

It’s a true story, written by Jesuit priest and playwright Bill Cain.

Which partly explains the play's title. Cain says the play "is about sifting through the presence of God in the reality of family."

Cain calls it both adventure story and love story and the kind of story about family that you don't always see on stage.

"I think all of drama and most of religion is about families that have broken down in one form or another. So this is an attempt to find drama and humor in the sacrifices a family makes for one another. Not the devouring of the other but the stepping back to make room for the other."

Cain adored his mother Mary. As well as his dad Pete. They were an extraordinary couple, he says. Depression-era children who fell in love, married and raised two boys in New York.

"We grew up poor. We grew up in a cold water flat in New York. No heat or hot water in the winter a lot of time. (But) we had no idea we were poor. When (his brother) Paul and I were little mom would have our clothes warmed up in the gas stove so that when we got up we got right into warm clothes. We were very well looked after."

But like all families, the Cains weren't perfect.  

"One of the things the play says is fights were the sacraments of our family."

The play is  a co-production between the Rep and Berkeley Rep, where it just played.

It’s Cain’s fourth play and his most personal one.

Actor Tyler Pierce navigates the Cain family dynamics. He plays a thirtysomething version of the playwright, who is actually in his 60s.

"Parts of the funny in the play are acknowledging how frustrating family can be. I can look back and see the fights that we’ve had for what they’re actually are. And so I can laugh at myself and my family."

But it also made him confront how he'd handle a parent's death.

"There's  a moment in the play where Bill has written, 'If I had known these things that I now know  I might have done things differently.' And I feel like the gift of this play is some foresight when it comes time for another loved one to pass from this world, I know I will take every opportunity to be there with them."  

Cain grew up Catholic. The family went to church. But the parents stressed to their children that it was out in the streets where one could find God, which is the mission of his order of priests, the Jesuits.

That’s also why Cain says writing and being a priest aren’t all that different.

"The play says that what a priest does, is point and says 'Look, look at that thing. It’s important. It’s holy.' And that’s the same thing what a writer does."

Depending on your faith, a play with the world 'Bible' in it, penned by a priest could send you running away. Because you think: This is a religious play. And it is, according to Cain’s definition.

"I think the question of how we treat one another and how we love one another is the real question of religion. And this play is definitely about that."

Cain was living in Manhattan, busy writing TV shows, when his mom, by then a widow for many years, called him and his life suddenly changed.

"When Mom got a diagnosis that says she’d be in dead in 6 months I said, 'I’ll move in with you.' She said, 'Thank you Billy, I’d appreciate that.'"

He moved out to Syracuse. And that’s when all sorts of challenges followed, like how they lived through a winter with 190 inches of snow.

"And came very near to killing one another," he says.
Cain was with his mom when his father died.  He says both parents' deaths have taught him that there's something precious in the way death lets us appreciate someone in a totally different way.

"Things quiet down. You end up sitting on a bed next to your father, sitting in a chair next to your mother. And say, this living being, this magnificent living being has been given to me for a while. Oh, let’s rejoice."

“How to Write a New Book for the Bible” continues at the Seattle Rep through Feb. 5.