Can a play have a halo? “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” arrives at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre with an almost holy glow: It’s the deeply autobiographical account of a Jesuit priest looking lovingly at his family as his 82-year-old mother dies.
“I believe all writing is prayer,” says Bill, the drama’s protagonist. Bill often speaks to the audience directly, and he keeps it casual, like a friend or an avuncular cleric. Or a stage-conscious narrator.
This “Bill” is basically playwright Bill Cain, the suddenly omnipresent author of the Shakespeare-and-Gunpowder Plot-centric “Equivocation” at Arena Stage and the recent casualties-of-the-Iraq-war drama “9 Circles” at Forum Theatre. The facts and events of the play are essentially Cain’s, and Bill narrates and dramatizes this ode to family life with the empathy and occasional humor of latter-day Neil Simon.
When Mary, Bill’s ailing mother, sneaks cigarettes in the bathroom, Bill’s scolding has the breezily contentious air of sitcom banter. Ray Ficca is deft with the low-key shenanigans. As Bill, his timing is easy and unforced, and Ficca is consistently charming and thoughtful, which are the play’s dominant keys.
In fact, director Ryan Rilette could not have found a more amiable foursome to portray Bill and his clan as they amble in and out of the mortally dark edges of Daniel Conway’s simple set (a small room that functions mainly as the family’s home but flexibly takes on the suggestion of medical offices and other locales). Mitchell Hebert is dapper and twinkly as Pete, the appealing patriarch who died too young. MaryBeth Wise is amusingly forceful and direct as Mary, a center of gravity around whom the others orbit.
Bill’s older brother, Paul, is played by Danny Gavigan, who flares with energy in a long and vivid vignette of Paul’s stint in Vietnam. Gavigan has a nice touch with the light sibling rivalry — each of the relationships has a strong undercurrent of affection — yet this passage brings a sudden dramatic edge to a play that sometimes runs the risk of seeming too simple.
Of course, there is nothing simple about being told you are going to die or about having to do the telling and the end-stage caretaking. These moments are the core of Cain’s drama. Making hard things bearable is what priests do. Playwrights often work the other way, digging beneath orderly surfaces to display subterranean messes.
“Bible” is a play, all right, but it’s as gentle as they come. It’s drama as an act of grace, a benediction. Is that enough? Theater buffs may find themselves longing for the literary flair of “Wit” (which also deals with faith and death) or the lively color of “Well” (about a writer and her ill, larger-than-life mother), especially during the second act’s long glide before final landing.
Cain’s approach isn’t that flamboyant, even if his personable characters and smooth, soothing scenes suggest that it wouldn’t take much torque to adapt this for the screen. (Cain once produced and wrote for the ABC TV series “Nothing Sacred.”) And if the play isn’t always creatively bracing, it’s sometimes rewardingly real. The perfect stillness of recognition blankets the audience more than once, and a sniffle may be inevitable as Cain chronicles what Bill plaintively calls “the ordinary death of an ordinary woman.”
by Bill Cain. Directed by Ryan Rilette. Costumes, Rosemary Pardee; lights, Colin K. Bills; sound design, Eric Shimelonis. About two hours. Through May 5 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100. www.roundhousetheatre.org.