Many productions in the theater ask that an audience sit back, relax and enjoy what is about to transpire on the stage before them.
And then there are the rare plays that demand that you sit forward in your seat and pay close attention.
They are not simple. They take work.
That’s the new play at Next Act Theatre, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, written by Jesuit priest Bill Cain.
The conceit of the play is that the Bible is not a book of rules but, rather, the story of a family. This family – the Cain family – is introduced by the youngest son, Bill, who is a priest. If it sounds like this is autobiographical, it should. Almost at the beginning, Bill tells the audience that a writer – any writer – should “write what he knows.”
And Cain the playwright knows his stuff on this one, and is unabashed sharing the joys, sorrows and truths and lies of his family life. But unlike so many “family” dramas, this one is not chock full of explosive crises.
This one is about how very extraordinary the ordinary can be if you face it with honesty, courage and a little bit of humor.
Bill (Jack Dwyer) returns to his home in Syracuse to care for his ailing and widowed mother Mary (Carrie Hitchcock) who calmly facing the fact that her life is coming to an end.
Told in fragments that jump around from time to time and place to place, the story unfolds slowly, dragging you into the aura of this very normal family. The aura is full of so many things that strike a familiar chord.
Children worrying about how to care for their parents. Love between siblings, tempered by occasional jealousies. Longing for a mate gone far too early. Memories of times good and times bad. Some tears and some smiles, sometimes in the same moment. And, even with all the people who float in and out, at the heart the four individuals who make up this family.
This production, directed by David Cecsarini, rests on the shoulders of four actors and this could well be a master class.
Mr. Dwyer is new to Next Act and he has the smooth little brother part down cold. He’s careful and gentle with his mother despite the challenges she presents. There are moments when he is a grudging caregiver but in his heart he knows that duty calls and he’s going to answer.
Ms. Hitchcock brings an intense focus to Mary, creating a woman who misses her past but who faces both her present and future with a kind of peaceful aplomb that combined resignation, hope and inevitability. Her variety of faces, moods and movements are unmatched.
Jonathan Wainwright as the older brother is a presence with a steely outside shielding an uncertain and complex heart and mind. Mr. Wainwright, whos acting career continues to grow to heights, has a brilliance about him that allows him to range from an enticing Scrooge to a troubled Mercutio to a sensitive Tim in The Good Father. A production with Mr. Wainwright always delivers everything that an audience could wish for.
And finally, there is Norman Moses as Mary’s husband, Pete.
Mr. Moses has a range as broad as any actor in Wisconsin and that range is on full and vibrant display here.
Not only is he Pete, but he is a physical therapist, a doctor, a nurse, a friend named Paulette and a couple of other characters.
When he plays a woman, there is no impersonation attempt. Instead a fick of a wrist and a cock of a head is more than enough to know that this man has suddenly switched gender right in front of our eyes. Mr. Moses is the kind of actor I could watch every single night of the year and always be both surprised as I fall in love with yet another character.
Over he six years since Bible premiered there have been subtle criticisms of the depth of the autobiographical nature of Cain’s play.
There may have been some caution in other productions, but under the wise and brilliant direction of Mr. Cecsarini, this one is an evening well spent, as long as you are willing to give in to the moment.
Production credits: Director, David Cecsarini; Scenic Design, Rick Graham; Lighting Design, Noele Stollmack; Costume Design, Amy Horst; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Properties Design, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Production Photos, Ross Zentner.