Playwright Bill Cain, director Ryan Rilette, artistic intern Amanda Coffey, and actor Ray Ficca during rehearsal for "How to Write a New Book for the Bible."
The play, "How To Write a New Book For the Bible," tells the story of a Jesuit priest named Bill Cain, who returns to his ailing mother's home to take care of her in her final days. It was penned by award-winning playwright Bill Cain, who's also, yes, a Jesuit priest.
"Jesuits believe that you find God in everything," explains director Ryan Rilette, Round House's producing artistic director. "And one of the things he says in the play that's really fascinating is that priests and writers do the same thing. They point things out. They notice things. They say, 'look at that thing over there. That's the thing that is different, and thus that's the thing that is special; that's the thing God cares about.'"
But for all this talk of "God," Rilette makes clear that "How To Write a New Book For the Bible" isn't what you'd think of as a "religious" play. You're not going to see the Garden of Eden, or Moses parting the Red Sea. And you're not going to hear a lengthy treatise on the Ten Commandments, or the Golden Rule.
"As Bill says in the play, people tend to think about the Bible as a rule book for morality," Rilette says. "And that's not what it is. What he says in the play is the Bible is a family story. And the message of the play is that every hundred years, every family should look back at their family story and write that down.
"And that's how we find God. That's how we add our own book to the Bible."
Mind you, says Rilette, not all those stories are going to be pleasant. For instance, one scene in the show depicts Bill's character returning to his mother's house and discovering that, in her worsening state, she has inadvertently soiled the living room.
"You know, talking about 'where do you find God,' and sometimes you find God not in the beautiful things but some of the most difficult things," says MaryBeth Wise, who plays mother Mary Cain.
"So when Mary and Bill fight each other, that kind of conflict can be revelatory," Wise says, citing the line in the play that says a family is "a crucible to turn passion in to love."
Ray Ficca plays the character of Bill Cain, and he says one of his favorite things about "How To Write a New Book For the Bible" goes back to what director Ryan Rilette said about how playwright Bill Cain defines God.
As opposed to "some Charlton Heston bearded presence in the sky with stone tablets," Ficca says, Cain portrays God as more of "a spiritual presence in all of us, in humanity, in existence."
Ficca points to one moment in the play, where Bill's father looks at his son... and smiles.
"The Bill character says, 'you know, I'm always searching for God. And what is God,'" Ficca says. "And I'm paraphrasing; I'm not giving you the lines. 'But then, my father looks at me with such loving eyes. I can't define what it is. I can't put a name on it. But I think that... is God.'"
So what the playwright does, Ficca says, is he takes religion out of the institution, if you will, "and puts it into almost a humanism thing."
"A humanism thing," says Ryan Rilette, that makes your own personal religion, whatever it may be, kind of a moot point.
"Whether you are a spiritual person or not, whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, it doesn't really matter," he says. "The message of the play is to take a really good long look at your family and your relationships with each other. And that's where you find... what is the word I'm looking for for this? That's where you really find the ineffable. That's where you find... infinity."
"How To Write a New Book For the Bible" runs at Round House Theatre in Bethesda from April 10 through May 5.
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[Music: "Sparkplug Minuet" by Mark Mothersbaugh from The Royal Tenenbaums]
Photos: "How To Write a New Book for the Bible"