Bill Cain's How to Write a New Book for the Bible, a fine play currently receiving its Philadelphia premiere at People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, is a unique hybrid: one part Tuesdays With Morrie, a memoir about bonding with a compelling person in the last months of her life; another part family drama in the Eugene O'Neill-Tennessee Williams tradition; and one part saga of spiritual journey, since the story is told from the perspective of a Catholic priest.
Cain, a Jesuit who is also an award-winning playwright and occasional television writer (House of Cards), spent six months nursing his mother as she was dying of cancer. He kept a diary and turned it into a book, then eventually into this play.
Bill cares for Mary, his bright, funny, often exasperating mother, in her small home in upstate New York. As they alternately bond and battle, the play hops around in time, revealing the family's economic struggles, the parents' sometimes contentious marriage, and Bill's complicated relationship with his older brother, Paul. This isn't a grand, tragic family saga. There's no addiction, as in Long Day's Journey Into Night, or mental illness, as in The Glass Menagerie. The Cains are recognizably ordinary; they have their squabbles, but one of their rituals is that no one is allowed to leave until the quarrel has played itself out.
'It’s your story'
Cain sees the Bible as the ongoing story of such everyday people. In the book that served as the play's source, he explains his approach: "If the Bible feels familiar to you, it should. It is your story. Even if you haven't read it, you've lived it. . . .You were born a new Adam or a new Eve and, if creation wasn't exactly new when you arrived, it was new to you. Like Adam and Eve, like Abraham and Sarah and all others, you beget your begats, fight your fights, say your prayers, and finally go to sleep. You take your journey. And the world is saved or lost in you."
Director Abigail Adams stages her production on a bare-bones set with several of the area's finest actors. Greg Wood's Bill is a smart, kind man who can be pushed only so far. Wood makes us see that though Bill loves his family, he has no illusions about their frailties.
As Mary, Alda Cortese displays fine comic timing, and she's heartbreaking as the character enters her final stages. Stephen Novelli does well as Bill's amiable father; Peter DeLaurier is touching as Bill's troubled brother; and both do multiple duty in various minor roles.