Thursday, February 02, 2012

Book of Cain

How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain, Directed by Kent Nicholson, Seattle Rep through February 5

The opening slate of Seattle Rep plays this season have been friendly, innocuous things. Kind of safe. If you slice off the last few minutes, any one could be the pilot for a comfortable Monday night show on CBS - Plays about dogs, acting classes and clowns. And it is as if the Rep has realized this and suddenly said, OK, you want something meatier, here's something about aging, family responsibility, and death! Serious enough for you?

Yeah, it is serious enough, thank you. And it is also very well written and extremely well acted.

Here's the deal on How - Bill (Tyler Pierce) is talking about his family - his older brother Paul (Aaron Blakely), his dad Pete (Leo Marks), and his mother Mary (Linda Gehringer). Peter, Paul, and Mary. And Bill, who often feels like the odd man out. The stage is a combination memory box and mindscape, where the characters are memories, ghosts, and commentators. Blakely and Marks pick up the spares as additional characters - doctors and beauticians and relatives, moving easily between roles, but Pierce is Bill throughout and Gehringer is Mary, and they are the center. 

Bill is a writer and a priest. I'm always suspicious of when writer puts a writer in his work, as often they are masterminds or get all the good lines or otherwise get a soft berth. Not so here. Bill the playwright gives Bill the character some good lines, but spreads a lot more of them out into the rest of the family. As a result, everyone comes to life in what is declared as "a functional family".

Furthermore, Bill the playwright avoids the tendency to tell the full tale. Stories do start and stop, just like in real life, and only afterwards do we get a sense that things were left out of the story. Bill is a priest, and apparently ordained, but is currently a writer. How did that happen? Furthermore, did his first screenplay sell or not? These parts of the story are only told insofar as they affect the family, and once they done their duty, the conversation shifts on to other things. This should be infuriating - instead it feels incredibly normal and natural. 

The core of the story is Bill tending to his dying mother Mary. Pete has passed on (and when he appears, he is in a seventies-style suit), and Paul is on the other side of the country. Elderly Mary has received that eventual death sentence for the elderly - an untreatable lesion, and Bill struggles with making her comfortable as slowly the simple things in life slip away beyond her reach. Yes, it is a serious play, but a also positive one - a celebration of life as opposed to a fear of death.

Bill's tale for us slips easily between fact and fiction, memory and commentary, it is a tricky business to carry the theme effortlessly among between disparate times and encounters, but is more than matched by a championship cast. Tyler Pierce is inherently affable as Bill, but Linda Gehringer shines as Mother Mary. The general riff is that there are no good parts for women of a certain age, but this one is challenging and rewarding, and Gehringer glides easily between middle-age and old age and into elderly, growing strong and shrinking before our eyes. It is that type of actor's-magic that reminds you it is both a gift and a craft, and Gehringer does it very, very well.

The seamless movement of the cast and the work extends to the direction, the set design, and the props as well. Characters move and morph though the simple set (stage with a door), and props are either bussed by the actors (who don't let the action violate their lines) or drop from lines above, where they have been hanging visibly through the play. A lamp, a stained glass window, a doctor's light, the Washington Monument, all arrive on clue with neither muss nor fuss.

And that is what we are seeing here - a well-oiled, well-acted, effective storytelling machine, powered with skill and care by the director and actors. Great cast with a well-written play with more meat to it than your standard sitcom pilot offering. It does take risks, it does carry a message, and it does move our emotions. The message of family comes home and touches the audience. The connection is made and the current flows. It is the thing that good theater is supposed to be.

More later,