Review: Next Act Theatre’s ‘How To Write a New Book for the Bible’ is a Well-crafted Examination of Family Bonds

See it now through until April 28.

Next Act Theatre’s production of How to Write a New Book for the Bible, playwright Bill Cain’s domestic drama, is a candid look at love, loss and the unbreakable bond between family. Directed by David Cecsarini and set in Syracuse, New York, throughout several decades up until the late 1990s, the play is illustrated through a series of flashbacks.

Inspired by Cain’s sometimes frustrating, but often touching, experiences of caring for his terminally ill mother, How to Write a New Book features a cast of four, with two members taking on additional, smaller roles.

Next Act newcomer Jack Dwyer (A Christmas Carol, Romeo and Juliet) gave a genuine and poignant performance as Bill Cain, a writer and priest who is struggling to cope with his mother’s cancer and the demands of caregiving, the death of his father and his family’s not taking his work as a writer seriously.

Carrie Hitchcock (Outside Mullingar) was remarkable as the spirited, sports-loving Mary Cain. Although decades younger, Hitchcock transformed into an octogenarian with ease. Veteran actor Norman Moses (Junk; Bloomsday) was well-cast as the affable family patriarch, Pete Cain. Milwaukee Rep regular Jonathan Wainwright, known for his recent role as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, played the role of Paul Cain, Bill’s older brother and a Vietnam War veteran who cannot forget painful memories of the war — or his mother’s criticism of him as a youth.

Jack Dwyer as Bill Cain and Carried Hitchcock as Mary Cain. Photo credit Ross Zentner

The play’s single set (designed by Rick Graham), an unadorned home interior with a table, a chair and several doors, helped the audience focus on the production’s quality acting, which included many fine monologues. Evocative recorded piano music was played between scenes and was appropriate for the production.

How to Write a New Book’s authentic dialogue — and occasionally strong language — helps enhance its credibility. Playwright Cain, also a Jesuit priest, incorporates a number of Biblical and Catholic references in his play, like the story of the Prodigal Son and praying the rosary. The playwright often points out the absurdity of trying to apply Biblical tales to modern-day life. For example, Bill scoffs at the frivolity of Noah’s Ark, and wonders why the Good Book doesn’t offer advice on how to deal with a parent’s dying.

To Cain, the Bible is family history: an incredibly personal group of recollections. Through a well-crafted blend of pathos, humor and tenderness, Next Act brings Cain’s thoughtful drama to life.

Go See It: How to Write a New Book for the Bible will run through April 28 at Next Act Theatre, (255 S. Water St.)