‘How to Write a New Book for the Bible’
Through May 5
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda
When his elderly mother Mary learns she has just six months to live, middle-aged Bill is forced to make a big decision: Go back to his life as a writer and Jesuit priest in the city or do what he thinks is the right thing — move in with mom and see her through to the end. Being the consummate dutiful son, Bill opts for the latter and during this cathartic time filled with scary pain, stretches of welcomed mundaneness and glimmers of joy, he grows even more appreciative of the stalwart mother he already loves.
In his latest work, the intensely autobiographical “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” (now at Roundhouse Theatre), playwright Bill Cain recounts the wide-ranging details of his 82-year-old mother’s death from liver cancer while also celebrating his life spent as the younger son in a mostly functional family.
The story takes place in Mary’s upstate New York apartment with frequent flashbacks 40 years prior to the Cain’s apartment in Queens. Speaking to the audience, Ray Ficca as Bill, warmly draws us into the world of his family, assuring everyone that the unfolding tale — at turns sentimental, funny, touching and occasionally starkly real (bring a hanky) — is true.
During development, the playwright dubbed this work “The Mom and Dad Play.” Yes, the lifelong love affair between sensible Mary (MaryBeth Wise) and her easier going spouse Pete (Mitchell Hébert) who could cut a rug and enjoyed a three scotch night out, is important to “Bible,” but a more apt working title might have been “The Cain Family Play.” In addition to the parents, both Bill (the play’s protagonist) and his older, athletic brother Paul (Danny Gavigan) are integral to the story. While Paul is deemed more physically capable by the parents, his clumsy but bright little brother Bill is still perceived as the favorite, setting the boys up for a mild, long ongoing rivalry. Nonetheless, the playwright’s respect and affection for his barely flawed characters is clear. Cain loves his family dearly.
Mary’s mantra is simple: life is tough, but if you work very hard it gets better. When Paul was a little boy he saved his pennies to buy a model from the hobby shop. At the register, he came up a nickel short. Mary refused to front him the five cents. She wanted to teach her son a lesson. She did — as soon as he comes of age, he’s off to Vietnam (a transformational military experience, compellingly played by Gavigan) and later raises a family faraway in Texas. But like all Cain family fights, Mary and Paul’s is eventually sorted out and put to rest.
Out actor MaryBeth Wise is extraordinary as Mary, fast forwarding 40 years, shifting from middle to late years, uncannily acquiring the rheumy eyes and slow gait that come with old age and sickness. As Bill, Ficca effectively portrays the frustrations and satisfactions concomitant with end-of-life caregiving. The remainder of the cast is equally good. Besides playing father and son, Hébert and Gavigan also effectively fill in as various annoying health professionals. Hébert additionally takes on a pair of smaller female roles, playing a recently bereaved hairstylist and Mary’s thoughtful, best friend Paulette.
With “Bible,” producing artistic director Ryan Rilette makes his Roundhouse directing debut. His smooth staging along with Daniel Conway’s deceptively simple, moving set; Colin K. Bills’ smart lighting design; and superb sound by Eric Shimelonis come together beautifully to support Cain’s time-travelling, quick scene-changing script.
Though Cain’s play is amusing and endearing, its center is about loss and pain. Ever the good son, Cain the playwright instructs that a bad situation can be made better- definitely a lesson worth sharing. His mother would be proud.