All Things Entertaining and Cultural
I uttered that line first after seeing Helen Gallagher and Eddie Bracken in a Paper Mill Playhouse revival of “No No Nanette.” The two acted with the assurance and moxie that comes with experience, the talent to simultaneously create a credible character and entertain.
“There’s no pro like an old pro” filtered through my mind every nanosecond I watched Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” at People’s Light & Theatre Company.
Alda Cortese, Peter DeLaurier, Stephen Novelli, and Greg Wood gave me full and thrilling opportunity to see their combined skills and well-honed talents at work. In addition to demonstrating the best of acting technique, sincerity with a purpose, each brought a vivid character, or more than one, to vibrant life.
It isn’t only that Wood, the neophyte among the “New Book” cast, has been a staple of local theater for 28 years by now — I met him in 1987 when he was doing one of his first jobs since training at Hedgerow, playing one of the suspects in a murder mystery at a Poconos resort. — it’s that he, DeLaurier, Cortese, and Novelli have done so many shows together, mostly at People’s Light, they have developed a filial symbiosis. They know each other’s styles. They can read off each other and catch each other’s rhythms. Their gifts as individual artists of great capability and range is multiplied, exponentially, by the bounty they bring to an ensemble.
I know I have nerve calling Alda, Peter, Stephen, and Greg “old.” Each has a perfect right to say, “Look who’s talking, Methusaleh!” But I am not referring to their ages as much as to their accumulated and breathtaking skill as actors. Abigail Adams, a colleague of this quartet for decades, must have known in all of her canniness that his ensemble would make “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” into a moving oratorio of sorts. Bill Cain should be thrilled that Adams and her august players were the troupe entrusted with his play. It isn’t that “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” is without merit. It’s an excellent play filled with the myriad ideas Cain includes in his work while staying on a true course towards a particular story and point of view.
It is also a piece that is director- and actor-dependent. It’s an intricate, delicate opus that in less deft hands can deteriorate and even bore. Pacing and characterization are more critical to its success than in most plays. You have to love the characters to agree to follow their lives to the extent that Cain asks. And to follow the detours and unexpected trials life puts in your way.
“How to Write a New Book for the Bible” is a story about a life, about Bill Cain’s in particular. The focus of the piece is more on Bill’s mother, Mary, a woman who ineluctably retains her character in spite of obstacles and late-life crises such as light dementia and cancer, but is it Cain’s recollection of his family, and particularly the care he needed to take of his ailing mother that gives the play its edges, soft and hard.
“How to Write a New Book for the Bible” is essentially a biography but one that centers on later years and the changing regard we have for our parents as we see them age and fade from being our rocks to be being our concerns.
In relating his family’s story, Cain uses everyone’s real name. Being a Jesuit, he knows better than to give his “new book” a name. The book of “Cain” would have symbolic suggestions that mislead and go way beyond any attempt Cain might have to keep Abel’s brother out of your head or any intention he has to be truly Biblical. Cain merely borrows the structure of a Biblical episode, introducing scenes with language such as, “And it came to pass Mary was a sneaky smoker. A smoker was she who would, in spite of her cancer, retreat to the bathroom with cigarettes her son, Bill, had to find and destroy.”
The conceit works. The Biblical format becomes an excellent guide for telling a family history. It helps that Cain is witty, and that the People’s Light cast, particularly Wood and Cortese, who represent the author and his mother, maximize every line and innuendo and do it naturally, without pushing or exaggerating anything.
Our curiosity is piqued. We long to know what is going to happen next. And when we do know — Progression of cancer is likely to have a predictable result. — we are eager to see Cortese and company play out their scenes and show us the humor, warmth, affection, irony, and reality that infuses Cain’s play and Adams’s production.
This is a wise play. Cain shrewdly allows all to happen simply. We’re watching a drama, so naturally there will be upheavals and moments of personal discovery that give the piece interest and flexibility, but like a Biblical scribe, Cain concentrates more on the ebb and flow of life, on the day-to-day becoming exceptional as graduations occur, as sons cling to then leave the family nest, as the priesthood is entered and resigned, as people age, and as fatal diagnoses are pronounced.
The saga of the Cain family is one of Americana. It contains all of the watershed moments and is peppered with all of the eccentricity that makes sharing stories about families a perennial American pastime.
Much of Cain’s story has cognates for us all. As we watch Bill cope with Mary, Mary commune with her husband, Pete, who we eventually learn was funny and devotedly paternal, Bill’s brother, Paul, becomes distant while in touch and retaining family affection, and Mary cope with mortality, we are reminded of similar scenes among our parents and siblings. Identity is a strong factor in the lure of this play.
That’s why I describe it as delicate and dependent. Cain depicts so much that is common among us, “New Book” runs the danger of becoming mundane or too familiar. Cortese and company lift it and its characters from the ordinary., They animate them with traits, expressions, kindnesses, and naughtiness that humanize Cain and relatives and make them plangently human and recognizable as people who supersede the flatness and matter-of-factness of script’s page and exude full, individual, dance-to-their-own drummer lives.
Cain populates his play with characters in a sense that goes beyond being a part listed in a dramatis personae. Mary, Bill, Pete, and Paul are characters is the way your Uncle Rudy is a character when the suits he bought 40 years ago turn out to be in style every eight years or your Aunt Rose is a character for never being in a hurry and frequently pronouncing, “I have no place to go and all day to get there.”
You know, char-ac-ters — people who have their own quirks, silliness, and mishagoss that leavens the world and keeps in amusing without exploding it or sending it all a-kilter.
Cortese, Wood, DeLaurier, and Novelli recognize the traits and small eccentricities inherent in their roles, the little habits, stubborn streaks, foibles, and quiddities that make each of unique while letting us remain reasonably functional.
These are the hardest people to capture on stage because they don’t go to the extremes people in constant turmoil, conflict, agitation, or good moods do. Life is a grab bag that does not run linearly and has moments that catch you unaware and even alter your perceptions and existence. Few lives are cataclysmic or have moments so unusual or difficult to bear they are the obvious, staple stuff of drama.
Cain, like Thornton Wilder in “Our Town,” shows proficiency in chronicling the ordinary but finds and illustrates enough life passages that combine humor, pathos, and common experience to depict how the ordinary becomes special.
In “New Book,” we key into the factors that decide the parent-child relationships. We appreciate Pete, the family father, more after he passes than we did as he came and went as a living being in the play. We retain interest in Paul, even though he seems to be a bit estranged as he, after a small struggle to see where he fits, makes a life for himself in Texas while the other Cains are definitely creatures of the East.
Under Adams’s generous and meticulous direction, every episode and potential calamity in “New Book” unfolds smoothly and entertainingly. We are amused and moved in turn as Cortese conveys the indomitable spirit of Mary Cain, and Wood narrates with an ironic, knowing glint in his eye.
As stated throughout, Cain could not have been treated to a better cast. Adams’s troupe is, to a person, laudable and amazing.
I have to confess I have missed Alda Cortese on the People’s Light stage. The serious admission is I was so concerned that I hadn’t seen Alda perform for so long, I actually checked to see whether she passed during the three years I was relatively absent from the theater seeing my own parents, as I express it, “to bed.”
How welcome then to see how spry, canny, vibrant, and affecting Alda is as Mary Cain. All of the sharp, scrupulous line reading was there as well as the subtle physicality with which Alda draws her characters. Not an occasion for humor, revelation, or empathy was left unplayed. Alda could have you reveling in Mary’s cantankerousness one minute and the weeping as the loss of control wrought by age and cancer the next. You see Mary’s obstinacy along with her charm, her emotional removal from her children combined with her objective affection for them.
Cortese makes Mary’s portrait complete. You know this woman as if she was your own mother or the dotty aunt that is the subject of half of your stories.
Cortese is mirror to nature while having the verbal skill to knock any line out of the park, a talent Philadelphia theatergoers for which Philadelphia theatergoers should give constant thanks.
The hope is this appearance, and the success of this performance, will coax Alda to the stage more often. She is too great a treasure to surrender to retirement, even if a life of leisure is her choice.
Greg Wood carries the bemused expression of one jauntily telling his family’s average but wacky tale throughout “New Book.” Wood’s Bill is the one entrusted to write the new Biblical insertion. He is the one who must faithfully and fairly put his parents, brother, and him a a kind of perspective that will be broad in scope and entertaining.
Wood represents Cain well. He maintains that cheery but ironic tone people often have when reminiscing about their families, and particularly about their older relatives. Through the narration, you see Bill’s affability and humility.
I would, if I met him, ask Cain to go more completely into Bill’s choice to become a priest and his option to not practice his vocation. Although Bill performs ministerial duties during “New Book,” it’s clear his status is one of being removed from the immediate commitment to the Church.
Distance, it turns out, will be a running theme within “New Book.”
Peter DeLaurier excels in several parts. He is particularly strong as Paul Cain, quieter than his mother and brother, more content to relinquish all claim to being the center of attention, more confused about the choices life presents him — Peter would rather not choose but find something, anything, and stick with it while it lasts. — and yet an equal member of the Cain clan when it comes to earning our attention.
Stephen Novelli shows us one fascinating transition, as he at first gives the impression that Pete Cain is a docile, obedient man who rarely asserts himself when dealing with his wife and is fairly passive and benign towards his children, then, in a later flashback scene, proves to be a warm, attentive father who droves his role as Daddy and knows how to delight his sons with affection and playfulness.
Bill Cain’s writing is intelligent and informed by everyday common sense. His observations are keen, and he makes shrewd connections between events. “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” shows Cain’s range as it comes after another of his plays, “Equivocation,” which received an illuminating production at ActorsNET this winter and is scheduled of the Arden Theatre’s roster this fall.
Jessica Ford’s costumes say middle-of-the-road Americana as much as anything else in Cain’s play or Adams’s production. Roman Tatarowicz’s set is all-purpose and versatile.
“How to Write a New Book for the Bible” runs through Sunday, June 28, at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (just south of the junction of Routes 30 and 401), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $77 to $60 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org.