How to Write a New Book for the Bible-Taproot Theatre

“Let’s get it right, down to the details.”

I fear I may be the wrong demographic for How to Write a New Book For the Bible.

Full-time priest and part-time playwright Bill Cain’s heartfelt 2011 play sketches a poignant portrait of a family reckoning with the impending loss of its matriarch. It’s a moving work – Cain based the play off the experience of losing his own mother, and it really shows in the minutiae of family life so lovingly captured by his script. In spite of all the good things about Taproot’s production of the play, though, I couldn’t avoid a niggling feeling that something was… off.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: How to Write a New Book for the Bible is a distinctly Catholic play. If that’s your thing, great! There’s a lot to love here. If you’re anything like me, though, the religious veneer might cast a shadow over what would otherwise be a perfectly pleasant production. Cain himself is our protagonist, and as such frames the drama through the lens of his Jesuit priesthood. Some of the Biblical musings really landed for me – the line “If you want to see God, look at your family stories” comes to mind – but I often found the religious references a bit cloying, especially as the play continued to layer them on thick without much reinvention. I fully acknowledge much of my feeling is a result of my ex-Catholic background; regardless, it without a doubt colored my view of the play, considering the work is fundamentally inextricable from its Catholicism.

The play shines when it’s concerned with nothing more than telling a story about a family, in times of both love and loss. Bill (Richard Nguyen Sloniker), a playwright-priest, returns home to care for his dying mother, Mary (Pam Nolte) in the wake of a terminal cancer diagnosis. The plot jumps back and forth in time, tracing the family’s ups and downs not through big, sweeping plot developments, but quiet, intimate moments. Cain’s script imbues the play with much heart and soul; the characters all feel lived in, evoking a wonderfully pleasant sitcom feel that walks a razor-thin line between family comedy and tragedy. The cast does a remarkable job with the material, especially Sloniker – the play largely relies on his comedic timing, and he does a bang-up job with his role. Bretteny Beverly’s direction is wonderful, as she guides the cast through moments of levity and despair without a hitch.

taproot how to write a new book for the bible

For all the play’s strengths, there were a few moments that made me feel a little… icky. A tastelessly deployed slur towards Asian people, while understandable in the historical context of the play, cast a shadow over the first act, and although the character who says it goes on to reckon with his actions, Cain’s deployment of the word left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s one thing for a character to say it and for the audience to know it’s wrong; it goes awry, however, when the narrator immediately repeats it unquestioningly, leaving little room for nuance when the characters themselves are slinging the term without a second thought.

This instance only serves to call into greater detail the rest of the play’s dedication to the straight and narrow. Not a lot is new here, and while the family dynamics at play are palpably heartfelt, they unfortunately failed to truly resonate with me. I would like to reemphasize, though: I am fully aware I am not the target demographic for this play. There’s a lot to love in How to Write a New Book for the Bible, especially if you, too, have experienced loss like the Cain family. Taproot’s production does a fantastic job with the material. If it sounds like there’s something for you in this play, I highly encourage you to go see it – if anything, go see it to have a good laugh, along with a good cry.

Taproot Theater, Jewell Mainstage, 212 N 85th St. 98103, North Seattle. March 20th-April 20th, 7:30 PM.

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