Next Act’s ‘How to write a new book for the bible’ pays homage to family

The Cain family, Pete (Norman Moses), Mary (Carrie Hitchcock), Paul (Jonathan Wainwright) and Bill (Jack Dwyer) pose for a photo in Next Act Theatre’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible.”  Photos by Ross Zentner

The Cain family, Pete (Norman Moses), Mary (Carrie Hitchcock), Paul (Jonathan Wainwright) and Bill (Jack Dwyer) pose for a photo in Next Act Theatre’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible.” Photos by Ross Zentner

 
 

By MARILYN JOZWIK

Published April 8, 2019

“How to Write a New Book for the Bible” sometimes feels like a sermon. And it’s little wonder, since the playwright is a Jesuit priest, Bill Cain.

If Cain is still delivering homilies, they are probably quite funny, poignant, full of relatable messages, drawn often from his own life.

Such is the case of this play, splendidly presented by Next Act Theatre and a cast of four. David Cecsarini directs. There is an abundance of displays of tenderness, familial love, humorous situations that certainly resonate with many in the audience. And this cast represents that tight-knit Cain unit so well.

Carrie Hitchcock plays the matriarch of the Cain Family.

Carrie Hitchcock plays the matriarch of the Cain Family.

The main character and storyteller in the play is none other than Bill Cain, played by Jack Dwyer. Bill, a struggling writer, who we later learn is a Catholic priest, becomes his mother’s caretaker after she finds out she has inoperable cancer. The job falls to him, rather than his older brother Paul, since Bill isn’t doing anything, he’s a writer, a joke which plays out often in the show. Oddly, he never seems to have any priestly duties, other than conducting his parents’ funerals.

Bill tells us early on how the Bible is not so much a guide to living, with its “bad anthropology and bad science”; rather, our families are the better blueprint. “Nothing in the Bible tells you how to deal with a death in the family,” according to Bill. He says “fights were the sacraments of our family,” explaining the Cain rules of engagement. He talks about the “sneaky” and “strange” things mothers do in the Bible, “like floating their babies down the Nile in a wicker basket” or having a baby at 80, and then tells stories of his own mother. Bill conjures up an “Epistle according to Paul,” his brother.

Those references weave through the story of Paul’s life, which deals with his present struggles with his mother’s illness as her caretaker and back to points in his childhood that define him. Dwyer’s Cain is such a wonderful storyteller, which puts the real Cain’s life together, in deftly told pieces.

Paul Cain (Jonathan Wainwright) served as an Army commander during the Vietnam War while his brother, Bill (Jack Dwyer), took care of their dying mother.

Paul Cain (Jonathan Wainwright) served as an Army commander during the Vietnam War while his brother, Bill (Jack Dwyer), took care of their dying mother.

In one truly funny segment, the young Bill, a klutz compared to his athletic brother, insists on carrying his just-purchased big pumpkin--which he drops, breaking it into many pieces.  Bill sequesters himself in his room, wailing at his misfortune even when his father comes to the door bearing a new pumpkin. His narrator older self explains, “I had committed too deeply to my unhappiness to give up.” When his father finally hands him the pumpkin, Bill rejects it, saying he wants HIS pumpkin. His father explains that all the pieces had been gathered and the damaged pumpkin put back together. You can almost hear the story being told as a parable.

The foregoing is just one of a multitude of moments that balance the frequent verbal battles, and in the end leave Bill proclaiming his was “a functional family.” Bill goes back to his father’s cancer battles, to his brother’s days commanding a force in the Army during the Vietnam War and then back to his current situation with his mother, admitting, “Sometimes I feel like I am of unlimited worth. That is God.”

The most heart-warming moments are when Bill is dealing with his mother, Mary, incomparably performed by Carrie Hitchcock. There is so much life-affirming material here, in digestible – and funny—bits, like when his mother, watching TV in the living room, cries out. Bill thinks she’s in pain, when actually she’s reacting to a play in a football game featuring Boston College, where Bill went to school. Hitchcock embodies Bill’s mother so believably, oozing pluck and stubbornness, which infuriates Bill, yet her strength in the face of hardship makes an indelible mark on her son. She segues from her present sickly self – though battling mightily – as she toddles about, slightly bent, and then goes back in time to her lively, robust antecedent, dancing with husband Pete.

As Bill’s father, Norman Moses is equally effective, especially since he briefly enters to create various other characters in Bill’s life – from the backwoodsy Syracuse book shop owner to Mary’s hairdresser and doctor. Moses creates a kindlier character than Bill’s mother (although her crustiness endears her).

Jonathan Wainwright as Bill’s brother Paul plays the second fiddle sibling nicely. Says narrator Bill, “They (his parents) thought he could do anything. When he couldn’t, they thought he wasn’t trying.”

These four characters grow on you. They make the audience want to invest more in their own families, to look to them for moral guidance. To go and create their own books of the Bible.

If you go:

Who: Next Act Theatre

What: “How to Write a New Book for the Bible”

When: Through April 28

Where: 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee

Tickets/Info: nextact.org; 414-278-0765