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Final Dress Rehearsal

Two of the actors lay stretched out on the floor at the final dress rehearsal for Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible, at Berkeley Repertory Theater: Linda Gehringer, playing Mary Cain, and Tyler Pierce, playing “Bill Cain,” a version of the young Bill Cain, born out of the diaries he kept while looking after his mother at the end of her life. The play wrestles with the family history (which the character Bill describes as life in a functional family, at which his brother comes forward to argue with him), sacred texts, and mortality – with Bill Cain’s usual mix of brilliance, devastating wit, verbal dexterity, and sudden moments of layered, large-scale moral insights. Both Bill Cain's father and mother die in the play. which gives a painfully accurate (and sometimes hysterically funny) depiction of the indignities, poignancy, helplessness, and loss of old age and death.

At the dress rehearsal, the real Bill Cain sat at the back of the theater with the play’s director, Kent Nicholson. The first four rows of the theater had been kept empty for the several photographers, moving around the theater, shooting rapidly, constantly, capturing almost every significant expression or gesture for publicity and lobby photographs. It was late in the play that “Bill Cain” and his mother lay on the floor at the edge of the thrust stage. She had fallen, he’d come in and found her, tried to help her up, then wound up joining her on the floor. She said to him, “This is nice. We should do this more often.” The audience was laughing wildly, and one photographer squatted right beside the stage, his very long lens nearly in the characters’ faces, his shutter clicking away.

The older actor never wavered from her Mary self, but the younger held his face suddenly still – only his eyes showed a series of changes. Certainly he was jolted into an awareness of being in the theater and being photographed, maybe wondering how he would look, maybe remembering that he was in dress rehearsal, in the final stages of getting hold of an enormously complex person (how hard it is to play a genius, let alone a funny, fierce, kind, generous, mercurial genius currently sitting in your audience) – who knows? All of the changes seemed to be happening right under the surface of the face, which held onto his role, and in fifteen, maybe twenty seconds, he once again returned to being “Bill Cain.”

Quote of the day:

“Sometimes,” she says, “everyone just seems like lost children to me. I write because I want to know how they cope.” —Barbara Gowdy

"Her books seem to tell us that lost children cope by finding each other, and that the paths we take are evidence of our will and our consciousness, that the paths we take are all mad, that the paths we take are all lovely. By making the everyday of the seemingly extraordinary and bizarre (and vice versa), she dignifies all our lives." —Gerald Hannon on Barbara Gowdy