Monday, October 15, 2012

All in the (Cain) Family

The Lauded Bill Cain

Fans of SCR’s new play development program might remember our recent work with Bill Cain, including staged readings of How to Write a New Book for the Bible (NewSCRipts, 2010) and 9 Circles (2009 Pacific Playwrights Festival). We commissioned Mr. Cain in 2010—and he is currently writing a new play for us.

Notable Work and Awards

  • 2011 Original Script Award, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
  • 2011 American Theatre Critics’ Association/ Steinberg Award
  • SCR reading, 2009 Pacific Playwrights Festival
  • World premiere, Marin Theatre Company (2010)
  • Los Angeles premiere, Curious Theatre Company (2012)
  • 2010 American Theatre Critics’ Association/ Steinberg Award
  • World premiere, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
  • Subsequent productions:
    • Geffen Playhouse (2009)
    • Manhattan Theatre Club (2010)
  • World premiere, Center Theater Group (1989)
  • 1990 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Writing
  • Joe A. Callaway Award, Broadway production
  • (ABC TV show)
  • Peabody Award
  • 1998 Humanitas Prize
By Kelly L. Miller

Bill Cain is not your typical, every day playwright. The award-winning author’s last two plays, Equivocation and 9 Circles, garnered the prestigious American Theatre Critics’ Association/Steinberg Award in two consecutive years—an unprecedented feat. And beyond being a playwright, Bill is also a Jesuit priest. In a recent interview for How to Write a New Book for the Bible, he explained how being a priest affects his writing: “I’m a Jesuit priest, and the Jesuits weren’t founded to live in a cloister or a monastery. We’re supposed to go into the world and find the presence of God there and celebrate it. I’d say that’s a pretty good description of what all of us do in theatre do as well. Theatre is always proclaiming ‘attention must be paid’ to what is neglected and holy. Willy Loman. Antigone. Blanche. In this play—Mary.  The jobs of writer and priest—as ‘Bill’ says in the play—are closely related.  In both, you point and say, ‘Look. Look there. That person you haven’t noticed—he, she matters.”

How to Write a New Book for the Bible is Cain’s most autobiographical play, which he says “focuses on three people: my father, my mother and my brother. These are exquisite human beings and I wanted to ritualize in some way the wonder of their lives as a way of celebrating them.” Cain’s joyous, poignant new comedy paints an intimate portrait of his family—while simultaneously celebrating life, death and the innate divinity in every family.

“[Cain] strikes a rare balance between erudition and accessibility, contemplation and gut-check emotion…Growing up during the civil rights era, attending Jesuit schools and tutoring in Brooklyn’s tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, he gained an awareness of live theater as a community-binding ritual akin to religion.”
- Los Angeles Times
Cain writes himself as a character in the play, “Bill,” who narrates the story of returning home to care for his mother Mary, after she’s diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer in her 80s. Hilarity ensues, as mother and son learn how to negotiate their own everyday rituals—of TV news and sports, pills and pain, doctor’s visits and domestic disagreements. And as the story of their last nine months together unfolds, the play flashes back and forth in time to tell the story of the entire Cain family. Pete, the kind-hearted father, who was a self-taught engineer and a very good dancer. Paul, Bill’s older brother, an athlete and soldier who becomes an award-winning teacher. Bill, the writer and priest, who sets out to honor his family by writing down their stories—and postulates that every family’s story should be added to the Bible (that most famous collection of familial stories).

Bill wrote the first part of How to Write a New Book for the Bible shortly after his mother died. “When I was cleaning out the apartment after mom’s death and dealing with all the junk that got left behind, I had to ask myself over and over again what was worth saving. I came to the conclusion that what was most worth saving were the stories. And not just in my family, but in any family. Writing is a way of saving the stories.” Over the next 10 years, Cain wrote his family’s stories down in the form of a book—which he then adapted into this play.

Lauded SCR actress Linda Gehringer originated the role of Mary Cain in the first reading of How to Write a New Book for the Bible at the 2009 Ojai Playwrights Festival and in two subsequent readings of the play. The play received its co-world premiere last season at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre.

THE CAST:  Tyler Pierce, Aaron Blakely, Linda Gehringer and Jeff Biehl.
Director Kent Nicholson is remounting that critically-acclaimed production for SCR with a stellar cast including three actors from the original cast—Aaron Blakely (Paul), Linda Gehringer (Mary), and Tyler Pierce (Bill). Actor Jeff Biehl (Pete) joins the company for this third production.  The original design team remains the same including Scott Bradley (sets), Callie Floor (costumes), Alexander V. Nichols (lights), and Matt Starritt (sound).

The San Francisco Chronicle called How to Write a New Book for the Bible “bracingly personal, smart, funny [and] affecting.” The San Jose Mercury News said Cain has “created a profound meditation on the shared narratives that hold a family together through the vagaries of life and death. The intimacy of his remembrance gives this memory play its shattering resonance. The playwright is giving a blessing to his family in the form of theater, and there’s no denying the beauty in that ritual.”

Asked during rehearsals at SCR to describe the process of creating How to Write a New Book for the Bible, Cain said: “I don’t think people have any idea how short theater rehearsal periods are. You have just about enough time to learn the lines and get it on its feet. With an established play, you know basically how it works, so you have some protection. With a new play, you have to invent an entire world around the text—all the while re-doing the text as you discover its hidden strengths and weaknesses. We invented the play at Berkeley Rep (and were lucky enough to win the critics award for Best Play as well as acting nominations for all the actors). At Seattle Rep we had a chance to refine it a bit. At SCR, we are finally getting a chance to live in it.”

The Incomparable Linda Gehringer

With her role as the loving, irascible matriarch Mary Cain in How to Write a New Book for the Bible, beloved SCR actress Linda Gehringer returns home.  Linda began working at South Coast Repertory over 15 years ago with the 1997 production of Peter Hedges' Good as New directed by Martin Benson.  Since then, she has appeared in 18 SCR productions—making Bill Cain’s new play her 19th show.  Her world premiere credits at SCR include Julia Cho’s The Language Archive and The Piano Teacher, Richard Greenberg’s A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, Horton Foote’s Getting Frankie Married—and Afterwards, Annie Weisman’s Hold Please and Rolin Jones’ The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, a role she reprised in its New York premiere at the Atlantic Theatre Company.  Other favorite SCR roles include Retreat from Moscow and All My Sons (find her full bio here).

Gehringer and John Sloan in The Retreat from Moscow in 2004
Linda has been an integral part of the development of How to Write a New Book for the Bible.  She has been working with playwright Bill Cain on the play since its first reading at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in 2009.  Linda originated the role of Mary Cain in that reading—and she continued to develop the role over the course of readings at Palo Alto’s Theatreworks and the Philadelphia Theatre Company.  She received widespread critical acclaim playing Mary in the co-world premiere productions of the play at Berekley Repertory Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre last season. Talking Broadway called her performance “Stunning…a brilliant tour de force of acting!”  Broadway World called her work “a singular performance…at once hilarious, heartbreaking, sturdy and frail.”  The Seattle Times lauded her, saying: “The Mary brought to vivid life in an incandescent performance by Linda Gehringer is sometimes in pain—and a pain in the keister.  She is also loving, willful, exuberant, self-doubting, scared and humbled by adversity.  And very good company.”  Gehringer was nominated for a Best Actress Award in Berkeley.

Gehringer and Tony Amendola in the 2010 production of
The Language Archive.
How to Write a New Book for the Bible is a celebration of family,” Linda said while rehearsing the play at SCR, “and I can think of no better place to do this play than South Coast Repertory because I think of SCR as my family.  I think of the audience very much as my family.  They all know my body of work and I feel this is a very important contribution to that body of work.  I feel like SCR is responsible for my relationship with new plays and creating roles.  This is one of my favorite roles I have created and owned and I just really wanted to share it with this audience.”

When Linda invited co-founding Artistic Director Martin Benson to see the production of How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Repertory, he knew he had to go.  Benson says, “Her performance was utterly transcendent.  So good, that Bill Cain insisted she play the role after she originated it in Ojai.  Linda is one of our most cherished artistic family members—and she is at the height of her game in this role.  She finds the utter humanity and profound depth in this character.  She moved me to tears and left me howling with laughter.”

Welcome home, Linda.

“Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary” – a Seattle Rep Interview with Linda Gehringer

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