By Mary Boyle
Despite the title, Next Act Theatre's latest production is not about the Bible, or religion, at all — it's about family. Specifically, it is a memoir of the playwright, Bill Cain's, family; a family, he proclaims, that was not, in fact, dysfunctional. One might wonder how you can possibly get a good play out of a functional family, but it does help if you start with some really good actors, and that is what Director David Cecsarini has done with Cain's play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible.
Bill Cain, both the playwright and the narrator of our play, has kept a diary every day of his life, so it's no wonder that he grew up to be a writer. Well, also a Jesuit priest, which is why the subject of God pops up frequently in his work, but not in the way that you'd think. For instance, at the start of this play, Bill says, "If you want to see God, look at your family story." When Cain's mother was diagnosed with an incurable cancer, he came home and documented his final days with her, along with the story of his family, comparing them to the family in the bible, but as an improved rewrite, with the complex love between family members at the heart of the story.
Interestingly, Bill, our narrator, is played by a relative newcomer, Jack Dwyer, who makes his Next Act Debut, but the rest of the family consists of some of Milwaukee's finest, including Jonathan Wainwright as Paul, Bill's older brother, a Vietnam Vet who went on to become a successful teacher; Carrie Hitchcock as Mary, Bill's mother, a somewhat hard woman who was never quite motherly; and, Norman Moses as Pete, Bill's father, who passed away before Mary, but makes his way into the story as Bill reaches into the past to help define the future.
Cecsarini, the Producing Artistic Director of Next Act Theatre, became a fan of the playwright after reading and then producing his play, Equivocation, last season at Next Act. Bible, he felt, had a broader reach.
"Families are the building blocks of society. People are forged in the family unit Families come in as many different shapes, sizes, styles and flavors as there are people to inhabit them and time to let them mix and grow. As Bill Cain searches for life's meaning in his family story, he points the way (an author, a priest: they both point), encouraging us to do likewise."
While the actors each deliver excellent performances (Carrie Hitchcock is particularly phenomenal), I can't say that I liked the writing. There are exceptionally funny and poignant moments between Bill and Mary as they struggle to reside under the same roof, and with Mary's failing body, that would touch anyone who has cared for an aging parent, but the overall storyline isn't very cohesive, and there are too many side characters that are either too fleshed out or not fleshed out enough. Truth be told, I would consider Cain's family to be about as functional as your average family, and though he strives to demonstrate that the love between family members is akin to the love of God, he misses the real truth about all family relationships, which is the paradox of how we struggle to really know our family members, yet are inescapably shaped by them. Nonetheless, it's a play that invokes good discussion about family relationships and aging, and the idea of each generation of a family being given the opportunity to add a new chapter, and to write the story better, is compelling.
How to Write a New Book for the Bible runs through April 28th at Next Act Theatre, located at 255 S. Water Street in Milwaukee. Tickets may be purchased by calling (414) 278-0765 or online at https://nextact.org/.
About Next Act Theatre
Next Act Theatre engages the hearts and minds of audiences with intimate, compelling productions intended to stimulate thought, foster the exchange of ideas, and promote the development of new perspectives and understanding. Led by Producing Artistic Director, David Cecsarini, Next Act continues its tradition of creating high-quality, professional theatre in Milwaukee. .