How to Write a New Book for the Bible
Playwright: Bill Cain
Director: Morris Ertman
Cast: Byron Noble, Erla Faye Forsyth, Anthony F. Ingram, Daniel Arnold
A production of Pacific Theatre
Apr. 26–May 25, 2013
“Believing in God is easy; the hardest part is believing this matters,” says Bill, the lead character in Bill Cain’s moving, semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional play on family; How to Write a New Book for the Bible. “This matters,” he says and gestures to himself and his surroundings, a smashed pumpkin on the floor.
From this pieced-together pumpkin, the audience is led to ponder the mystery, beauty, and brokenness of family life.
Pacific Theatre’s newest play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, delves into the tale of the final days of Mary Cain, brilliantly portrayed by Erla Faye Forsyth. Mary’s son Bill, (played by Anthony F. Ingram) trained as a priest but working as a writer, comes to care for her in her final months.
The audience is led into this family life through stories and events shared through the lens of Bill’s diary. Told in snippets directly to the audience and through a series of flashbacks, this (at time confusing) collage leads the viewer to a realistic picture of a family.
A “functional family” follows the family rules (“it doesn’t matter what the neighbors think”), fights fair (“never leave a fight unfinished”), and loves deeply. We see this family through the optimism of Bill’s father Peter (played by Byron Noble), sibling rivalry with his brother Paul (played by Daniel Arnold), and conflict with his mother Mary over which butter is better. This family trinity of Peter, Paul, and Mary truly search the many roads a man must walk down to get to what really matters in life.
“These are the final stations in the ordinary death of an ordinary woman,” Bill says about Mary’s last days of life. But it’s the ordinary aspects of day-to-day life that makes honouring her story so important to him and such a lesson for us.
Bill’s premise is that every 100 years or so, we should write another book of the Bible about the lives of our own families. Through a sincere and at times humorous portrayal of his own family, this “Epistle of Bill” draws on metaphor, musings, and flashbacks to direct the viewer to the divine in the everyday.
To Bill, the Bible is a narrative, a set of stories so compelling they had to be handed down. It’s not just set of rules to live by, but something that lives with us and in us as we become part of God’s continuing story in the world. When we see God’s hand in the ordinary of life – the birth, life, and death of our loved ones – we see that “this,” the everyday, matters.
It has been said that all stories are improvisations on Scripture and these improvisations abound here. From the names of the family members (Peter, the family head; Paul, the brother writing letters from Vietnam; Mary, the hard-working mother who doesn’t understand her son) to honouring one’s parents, the birthright concept, the prodigal son, and a parent’s final blessing, it is evident that biblical themes are part of the framework of this narrative. But this story goes beyond those pages to flesh out the biblical themes, framing them anew for a culture struggling with the concepts of aging and death. This story gazes unflinchingly into the face of death and celebrates life in the small things.
Under the direction of veteran director Morris Ertman, the story is allowed to stand on its own from the simple set design to the well-thought-out staging, costumes, and props. The set, cleverly designed as a mausoleum, is evocative and thought-provoking from the viewer’s first entrance into the intimate theatre gallery. The audience is brought into the family tree by the set design, poignant staging choices, and purposeful use of the space. The subtle, yet effective use of Pacific Theatre’s new lighting board showed its capabilities without detracting from the simplistic presentation.
Forsyth embodies the pride and the pain of Mary’s journey through terminal cancer with humour and grace. Although the multiple roles of Byron Noble and Daniel Arnold (father, brother, doctors, hair dresser, friends) are sometimes confusing, these actors do a valiant job of filling in the story line outside of the main characters and bring humour into their respective role changes.
This production embodies the beauty of life and clarity of death, and leaves the audience with a desire to continue to see the story unfold in their own situations. As Mary says, “Don’t make me look foolish, Bill,” we are reminded that the little things don’t make us foolish, they show who we truly are. Bill has not made her foolish, he has shown her heart and her love in all its infuriating detail – and we are left remembering “this [the everyday] matters,” and we need to make life matter every day.
Renee Evashkevich is part of the worship arts faculty at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C.