Grace, God and family in Berkeley Rep’s brilliant Bible

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Linda Gehringer is Mary and Tyler Pierce is Bill in Bill Cain’s world-premiere drama How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Gehringer (far left) and Pierce (far right) are joined by (from left) Leo Marks as Pete and Aaron Blakely as Paul. Photos by

Sometimes you experience a work of art – for me that art is usually theater – and it connects you with something bigger and more powerful than your individual experience. You connect with the other audience members, the actors, the designers and, especially, the writer. When that connection is made, the communal heart of theater is so alive, so vast and so inexplicably moving that transcendence does, however temporary, seem a viable option.

Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible is one of those experiences. This world-premiere production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre) is the most moving and insightful new play since Margaret Edson’s Wit.

Like that play, Cain examines what he describes as “the final stations in the ordinary death of an ordinary woman.” And that woman happens to be his mother. But more than that, Cain’s drama is about family, his and mine and yours. The more specific the details of his family – good and bad – the more his family resembles yours. The details themselves may be different, but somehow in the sharing, everything his family does and goes through somehow relates to you and your family.

This is an extraordinary play, and it will affect everyone differently. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance on the Thrust Stage, audience members were visibly moved throughout the show’s nearly 2 ½ hours. I was in tears multiple times, and it wasn’t always because what was happening on stage was sad. When you’re not being moved, chances are good Cain is making you laugh, often at his own expense.

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Fully an autobiographical drama, the characters on stage are Cain, his parents, Pete and Mary, and his older brother, Paul. Bill (Tyler Pierce) is the writer in the family and the teller of this tale. He flips us back and forth in time – his parents’ courtship, his brother’s experience in Vietnam, his father’s battle with cancer – but primarily he’s sharing the experience of caring for his 82-year-old mother (Linda Gehringer) in the last year of her life.

To make sense of the Cain family, we have to understand that they were – prepare for a shock – a functional family. They fought, but their fights had rules. They weren’t perfect or all loving all the time, but their family unit worked, and they all seemed to genuinely care about one another.

Cain writes with such love for his family, and the fact that he’s so eager to share his family with audiences makes his story all the more endearing.
The cast, under the sensitive direction of Kent Nicholson, is superb. It’s hard to imagine a more appealing guide than Pierce or a more dynamic woman than Gehringer’s Mary. Aaron Blakely as older brother Paul (and a number of smaller roles) makes a powerful impression, especially when Paul and Bill pay a nighttime visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Leo Marks charms as Pete, the Cain patriarch, and there’s an especially moving scene when Pete, in the throes of his final illness, wanting Bill to read to him but really it’s just a pretense for Pete to be able to stare at his son.

With a brilliant play comes an equally brilliant set and lighting design. Scott Bradley wisely leaves the stage (with its gorgeous wood floor) bare, save for a doorway and a wooden chest that is utilized in a number of inventive ways. Occasionally items float in from above – a table lamp (with no need for a table), a window, the moon, the Washington Monument – but the set is impressionistic, much like the play.

The most dominant item hovering above the stage is a beautiful stained-glass window, which catches Alexander V. Nichols’ light in comforting ways. Surrounding this window are fragments of mirror, which also catch the light and throw it back on the audience.

How powerful to turn the play’s metaphorical illumination into something real – real light coming from the stage onto faces in the audience. It’s all of a piece in this Bible experience – this profoundly wonderful and deeply personal experience.

The masterful Cain has created a sort of theatrical sermon here. He deconstructs and then reconstructs the elements of a sermon – lesson, illumination, inspiration – and makes them mean something. He grapples with the very notion of God, which he says can be found in the details of a family.

At one point, Bill is talking directly to the audience and gives us a glimpse of the infinite: “Half the time, I don’t even know what God is. But I do – sometimes – experience a mystery – a vast and caring mystery – that gets past my defenses and into my soul and says – I – even I might matter. Vastly. That – limited as I am – I might be irreplaceable, unrepeatable and of unlimited worth.”

Then Bill pauses.

“When that happens, that’s called God.”

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Bill Cain for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.
I couldn’t fit everything into that interview, so read the “outtakes” here.

Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible continues through Nov. 20 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

Bill Cain opens a new book for Bible

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Tyler Pierce is Bill and Linda Gehringer is his mother, Mary, in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo courtesy of Below: Playwright Bill Cain. Photo by Jenny Graham

Bill Cain’s last two Bay Area outings, Equivocation and 9 Circles, both at Marin Theatre Company, were absolutely fantastic. So there’s reason to be excited about the world premiere of his latest play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. With great compassion, intelligence and humor, Cain writes about his parents and his older brother in a play that flips back and forth in time as Cain cares for his dying mother.

I talked to Cain about the play for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

As usual, there wasn’t enough space in the story to include all of Cain’s interview, so I’d like to include a few more morsels here.

It’s somewhat ironic that for a play about “writing a new book” that when Cain set out to chronicle his family, he didn’t write a play first. He wrote a book. “The language I speak is the language of stage and ritual,” Cain says. “So why did I write a book? I don’t know exactly, but all of it comes out of my desire to celebrate my family. I shared parts of the book with my brother, and he was very responsive to it. ‘Yes, that’s who we were,’ he said. The book didn’t make either of us nervous in the way the play does. The enacting of a ritual is a frightening thing. It’s where taboos are broken. The lights go out in the theater, the lights come up on the stage. You enter a private space. With a book, you read it in your own space and time. It’s difficult to take a private thing into a public arena.”

Bill Cain

In writing about his parents’ marriage, Cain thought about the kind of marriages we’re used to seeing on stage – George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Willy and Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman – and the high drama involved. His parents didn’t display that kind of drama. “But there’s drama as well in the effort of people to love one another,” Cain says, “to put themselves aside to make space for the other. This play is the story of a man and a woman, both of whom are making each other’s fullness of life possible by creating space for the other. You don’t see that too often on stage. It’s a hard thing to dramatize and usually relegated to comedy, but there is drama to it, but maybe not in the way we’ve defined drama, with a protagonist and an antagonist. In the definition of a good marriage, there is no enemy. You don’t make the other the enemy, but that doesn’t mean there’s not struggle. It’s not George and Martha but rather Ralph and Alice. You treat that struggle with honest respect. Two people accept the foolishness of each other and stand by the other. That requires huge sacrifice, huge discipline.”

New Book is directed by Kent Nicholson, with whom Cain worked at Marin Theatre Company on 9 Circles. “I love working with Kent because he has a way of opening the room to the best idea, to the best impulse,” Cain says. “So everyone is involved fully, creating clarity. He puts it all together, but everyone’s questions help shape the outcome.”

With the new play, Cain says he hopes to create images and stories closer to people’s actual experiences rather than the ones we’re constantly handed. “It’s hard to see what our actual experience is,” Cain says. “Like right now, if you’re watching or reading the news, the only thing that seems to matter is the economy and we should be very afraid. But as a writer and as a Jesuit, I have to say, hey, wait a minute. Where was I touched by the infinite today? What actually was my experience? That’s where great works of art come from. My favorite work of art, my favorite book is Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne Frank lived in a world that told her what she was supposed to be, but she insisted on her own experience. She found huge darkness, and under it found a more luminous reality. That is available to all of us. What’s unique to you is what the world needs.”

Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible continues through Nov. 20 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50 to $73. Call (510) 647-2949 or visit

Marin ignites an inferno with extraordinary 9 Circles

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(from left) Craig Marker, James Carpenter and Jennifer Erdmann star in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s 9 Circles at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Erdmann, Marker and Carpenter. Photos by Ed Smith

Craig Marker gives a performance of such magnitude in Marin Theatre Company’s 9 Circles that it almost eclipses the play itself.

Obviously the play has to be substantial and artful enough to elicit great work from actors, and that is certainly true of Bill Cain’s meaty script here. But at times it almost seems Marker’s not in a play at all – he’s a flesh-and-blood documentary, a slice-of-life person pushing everyone in the room through a barrage of intense emotions.

There’s simply no escaping Marker’s intensity in the 99-seat Lieberman Theatre, Marin’s intimate second stage. Nor would you want to escape. This is without question must-see theater.

Works of art dealing with the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not exactly been embraced by pop culture. Until the Oscar-bedecked The Hurt Locker, no one really bothered to pay much attention. Perhaps we’re too close in terms of current events and too far away in terms of geography and personal involvement.

Cain’s stunning work bridges those gaps with incredible efficiency. With three actors, one rudimentary set and running time of only an hour and 45 minutes, he whisks us from Iraq to the U.S. and back, pulling us deeper into his wrenching story with every scene.

Let me correct myself. We don’t have scenes here; we have circles – nine of them. Just like Dante’s Inferno. The hell that Cain depicts begins with a 19-year-old soldier, Daniel Edward Reeves, being honorably discharged after 10 months of fighting. Very quickly, we spiral down with Daniel as he’s arrested in the U.S. and charged with unspeakable crimes against Iraqi civilians.

Daniel’s hell involves betrayal, loneliness, guilt, rage, patriotism and self-realization, among many other things. The young man is described as having a personality disorder because he doesn’t feel things he probably should, and he’s also described as being “west Texas bullshit to the core” and “an articulate son of a bitch.”

9 Circles 1That’s all accurate, but it barely begins to describe the person we come to know as we spin through these circles. Whatever he did or didn’t do in Iraq, Daniel is a sympathetic character, if only because we begin to feel the enormity of his pain and get an acute view of his inner life – what it contains and, perhaps more importantly, what it’s missing.

Marker’s performance as Daniel is heroic – he lays it all bare (literally) and carries the weight of this heavy drama on his capable shoulders. Filtered through Marker, Daniel’s life force is at once terrifying and compelling. When a priest who is attempting to save Daniel’s soul admits that the young man is “plain I-don’t-give-a-fuck human evil,” it’s hard to argue. And yet, when Daniel shows us how his mind and emotions work in relation to his actions, we empathize, and empathy is a hugely important factor here.

Under the astute, keenly felt direction of Kent Nicholson, Marker receives able support from James Carpenter, who plays all the other male roles, from lawyers to priests to commanding officers. As the priest, Carpenter is chilling, and his scene with Daniel is one of the play’s strongest. A little later on, as a lawyer who wants to use Daniel’s case to prove the futility of the war in a court of law, Carpenter is fascinating in his single-mindedness. The lawyer tells Daniel that his biggest crime was to make the enemy empathetic. “Feeling the pain of the enemy is unendurable,” the lawyer says.

Jennifer Erdmann doesn’t have enough to do, which explains why she makes less of an impression here. But her key scene with Marker in which Daniel’s hyper-macho bullshit act is finally pierced by a military shrink, is by far the evening’s most moving.

In fact, that scene provides the emotional apex of the story, and it’s only circle No. 6. The three circles after that should increase the dramatic momentum, but they don’t entirely. The final few minutes of the play are quietly horrifying, but they still don’t top the wrenching agony of Circle 6.

This world-premiere production is firmly on its feet, but there’s still work to be done in the fine-tuning.

The power and punch of 9 Circles is undeniable. Cain’s script zeroes in on one soldier’s story and leaves us feeling the inescapable historic and emotional weight of the entire war. This is theater that shakes your foundation and leaves you breathless.


Bill Cain’s 9 Circles continues through Nov. 7 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Road, Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415 388-5208 or visit for information.