By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Apr 08, 2019 at 8:26 PM

There are quite a few playwrights I’d like to meet. Shakespeare is definitely invited to my "amazing authors throughout the ages" dinner party, but I’m actually taking Bill Cain off the list. Not because I don’t think his work is smart, funny and intriguing, but because I already met him, through his transparently autobiographical work, "How to Write a New Book for the Bible," on stage at Next Act Theatre through April 28.

Cain’s understated play is both a beautifully realized story of a mostly functional family – a true rarity onstage – and a meditation on grief from many perspectives. And though it sounds absurd in the title, the work also frequently compares the Cain clan to biblical figures and adds lessons on faith, love, ritual and spirituality as an extra layer of introspection.

From other playwrights this might sound gimmicky or trite, but Cain is not only a masterful writer, he is also a Jesuit priest. His insights are gentle but profound, and as the writer’s axiom goes, by including hyper-specific snapshots of his family’s past – from a smashed jack-o-lantern to a box full of letters from Bill’s brother serving in Vietnam, to the orchids that Bill’s mother felt she should have received from his father – the story becomes universal.

"How to Write a New Book for the Bible" begins in extremely well-traveled territory. The younger brother Bill (an enchanting Jack Dwyer) has come home to Syracuse, New York, to care for his widowed, aging mother (a stunning Carrie Hitchcock). But for every expected bump in the road the mother and son encounter together as the child becomes the caregiver and the adult becomes increasingly helpless, the play adds texture, context and complexity, revisiting defining moments in his family history and looking for the greater meaning behind – or reconciliation with – their own suffering. As Bill notes more than once, "If you want to see God, look at your family."

Our narrator is the favorite son, a struggling screenwriter and an unlikely priest. Dwyer is also a charming guide for the audience through Bill’s mother’s decline from liver cancer, interspersed with many other vignettes that go back and forth in time, depicting both literal and spiritual conversations that also include Bill’s father (a perfectly cast Norman Moses) and circumspect older brother Paul (a world weary Jonathan Wainwright).

Though Dwyer explains, even boasts, at the top of the show that the Cain family had a system for fighting fair, it did not exclude this foursome from pettiness, jealousy, antagonism or disappointments in one another. Over the months of doctor appointments, yelling over his mom’s sports shows and arguments about butter, Dwyer’s frustrations are just as real as his search for higher meaning.

The pressure to be both a good son and a spiritual counselor, when at times he feels inadequate at both, makes the entire story richer. The playwright shows his "warts and all" family, as well as plenty of his own foibles, with real intention, not as a documentary but as a beautifully woven tapestry of experience that adds up to much more than just another funeral.

As Bill’s mother Mary (of course she’s named Mary) Carrie Hitchcock is delightfully idiosynchratic. Her fierce love for her family often comes out in sharp words when her husband and sons don’t live up to her expectations, but her devotion is true. Hitchcock transitions instantly between scenes that take place decades apart, simply by changing her posture and her specific gait. Alternately stubborn and sweet, she equates being supportive with reminding her husband that he drinks a little bit too much and telling her sons that they never quite reached their full potential. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Hitchcock centers the character in Mary’s heart rather than her disapproval.

Her easy chemistry with Moses – Hitchcock’s actual husband, playing her stage husband – allows them to speak volumes about the couple’s relationship in only a few brief flashback scenes. And their ongoing conversations after Pete’s death are also a highlight of the play; they feel so natural and necessary for people who have faced life together for so long.

In the present, Wainwright's Paul is a math teacher in faraway El Paso, as well as the absent sibling checking in on mom over the phone for much of the play. But in the middle of this drama, there is a sudden shift in focus that allows older brother to drive the story.

After serving in Vietnam and then abruptly leaving the military after earning a handful of medals, Paul doesn’t talk about his experiences there until decades later when he and Bill drive cross country together and stop at the Wall – the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Wainwright brings just the right combination of understated heartbreak, regret and anger to mourning the friends Paul lost there, demonstrating yet another way that people process life and death traumas.

Once again, Bill’s job is to continue listening and looking for God in the people around him – a challenge that feels more daunting in every scene. But Dwyer’s comfortable rapport with us, and with his beliefs, make the difficult subjects of love, death, family and religion easier to approach on intellectual, spiritual and emotional levels.

Rick Graham’s set, composed of tall, rolling panels in neutral colors, is at first underwhelming but pays off in versatility that helps the storytelling by accommodating video during Paul’s chapter of the play. Amy Horst’s costume design is similarly plain, playing off the gray, tan and light blue of the stage pieces. This contributes to an "everyman" feeling of the Cain family, perhaps eliminating some of the distance between their story, the audiences’ stories and those in the Bible.

Though the end of the play is never in question, the journey is full of love in all its forms, and a few surprises. There were plenty of tears in the audience on opening night, but there were also plenty of laughs. This light touch dealing with serious subject matter is a big part of the play’s appeal. With director David Cecsarini’s smooth transitions and steady pacing, the production doesn’t wallow in dark places for the sake of emphasis. It right-sizes each vignette, which is a real accomplishment.

Actually, after further consideration, Bill Cain is back on my invite list. Along with his family, he is exactly the kind of guy I’d like to know better.