“How to Write a New Book for the Bible” is, to use a Biblical reference, damned good theater. At People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, it’s also a spot-on production about many things – but primarily aging — with compelling performances from four of the region’s highly seasoned actors and inventive staging by People’s Light artistic director Abigail Adams.
The play’s title is about an addition to the Bible, not a substitute for it. In playwright Bill Cain’s telling, both testaments of the Bible are about families and their stories, so why not write our own family story, a sort of third testament that shows what we’ve learned about life and what values guide us. If this sounds simplistic, it’s not – “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” is a call to understand yourself and your roots, and not a moment of they play, amazingly, is gooey or sentimental, even when the dead speak with the living or between themselves.
Cain is a playwright, screenwriter (“Sounder” and others), director, actor and, most important here, a Jesuit priest. “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” is his story, about a solid Christian family composed of a writer (him), his older brother, his father and his aging and increasingly failing mother, who has cancer. Its plot, according to the character who represents him in the play, is about “an ordinary death of an ordinary woman.”
In fact, “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” is about so much more than that. Cain’s play covers all the peripherals tied to the death of elderly parents: the strain on the two boys, especially the writer, who cares for Mom and resents his far-off brother for not being there; the mixed feelings of his brother for not being there; the well-meaning doctors and their duplicity in declaring harsh truths; the helpless way the mother acts with her family and the bucked-up way she’s able to deal with everyone else; how a family relates as it transitions after decades of so-called normalcy; the struggle to carry on with life in the face of certain oncoming death.
Whew! Pack it all into two acts and write it with as much sincerity as you can muster in the face of a necessary theatrical artifice and you have, well, a damned good piece of theater. Like the family it involves, “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” is not perfect. Cain uses the word mystery to define writing in general, which sounds a lot like nonsense. But when he later links mystery to the writing in the Bible, it’s altogether understandable — faith-based belief systems, he seems to say, allow people to appropriate mystery.
It’s heady stuff – in a script that’s also funny and moving and, at People’s Light, kinetically staged. The estimable Greg Wood plays the son, and his grasp of the character’s many feelings is complete. Wood works with three longtime members of the People’s Light repertory troupe: Alda Cortese is exemplary as the mother in many different stages of her life, as the play ping-pongs elegantly between periods of the family’s history. Peter DeLaurier is the brother, whose scenes in Vietnam and in that war’s aftermath are particularly poignant. Stephen Novelli plays a variety of roles, anchored by his portrayal as the father who died prior to the present-day part of the family story.
Roman Tatarowicz’s simple dark-wood set allows the action to move freely around the stage, and Daniel Kluger’s sound design includes the noises of everyday life that accompany the noises of everyday people. The cast is so natural, it seems they’ve lived some of these roles off the stage – but at a certain age, almost all of us have. “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” is as much a piece of reality as it is a play.
_“How to Write a New Book for the Bible” runs through June 28 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.