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“The first rule of writing: Write what you know”.

Daniel Arnold, Anthony F. Ingram

One of the first lines uttered by our narrator, Bill (Anthony F. Ingram puts on a strong performance here) sets the stage for the rest of the two-hour (including intermission) production of Pacific Theatre’s How to Write a New Book for The Bible. That title alone made me curious, and I imagine it would to you as well. After all, a play with that title can go either the theological route, making for a long evening of Bible recitations, or come off as a primer on writing, well, literally a holy book.

Anthony F Ingram, Erla Faye Forsyth
[Anthony F. Ingram, Erla Faye Forsyth; photo by Emily Cooper]

Luckily for the audience, this is a combination of the two, with a great amount of humour thrown in to confront the gentle subject of aging parents close to death. Mother Mary (Erla Faye Forsyth) is a witty 82 year-young gal who gets the best lines in the play. Erla is fabulous in this role; speaking with her at the opening reception, this is a real-life situation for her as she’s currently living at home looking after her own folks.

Playwright Bill Cain has put his own life into the play as well. How to Write a New Book For The Bible has been performed in the US; this is the autobiographical play’s Canadian premiere.

The simple set includes a solitary door, chair, old TV and two concrete bricks. The floor contains the Cain family tree on name plates, right down to playwright William.

In the play, Bill and older brother Paul (a sharp performance by Jessie-nominated Daniel Arnold) are caring for their aging mother. While Paul is back in El Paso, Bill is reluctantly put in charge of living at home with Mom. You see, Paul has a “real job”, while Bill is just a writer. This is the biggest difference between the two: one is the athlete, the other, a scholar. On top of Bill’s parental care and script writing on the side, he’s a priest. And therein lies the premise of the play’s title. Bill wants to rewrite a book for The Bible.

Byron Noble
[Byron Noble; photo by Damon Calderwood]

Theological references to family are peppered into the comedic story line. This is a tale told by all four characters, though Bill is the lead narrator. During key monologues, soft melodies are played in the background. Interwoven into the play are family rules and what’s fair. The four Cains proceed to sound off a list of rules, as they come from a functional family. As this plays out, a lot of family frustrations surface, making for excellent character build up.

“Unconditional love makes way more demands than conditional love.”

This theme is strongly brought forth by Bill and Paul’s mother, who’s had a rough life, a strong work ethic, but instilled the never-give up-attitude in both sons. Another interesting facet of the play is having the characters talk in the third person. Paul and Mary both give very powerful performances and were my favourite two characters in How to Write. Byron Noble completes the picture as Peter, the dad and Mary’s husband, who appears in both life and afterlife. Both Daniel Arnold and Byron Noble play a few characters during the course of the play.

Byron Noble, Erla Faye Forsyth
[Byron Noble, Erla Faye Forsyth; photo by Damon Calderwood]

While the first half conveys the family mold, the second half has more to do with Mary’s inevitable exit from this world. Acting as priest, Billy closes the production, giving much food for thought as well as a lovely, simple after-life ending to the story. Kudos to Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston for his attention to detail. Try to visit the set during intermission and after the play. There’s a lot happening on both the walls and floors.

Book cast
[Byron Noble, Daniel Arnold, Anthony F. Ingram, Erla Faye Forsyth; photo by Emily Cooper]

This production is directed by Morris Ertman, returning for his second show at Pacific Theatre this season following his work on Leave of Absence. How to Write a New Book for The Bible continues at the Pacific Theatre through May 25.

Pacific Theatre’s landmark 30th season begins on September 20. Visit the website for its nine productions through June 2014.

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