Linda Gehringer is living an actor's dream ? owning a meaty and rewarding stage role for many productions.
"I've been involved with this script for three years," Gehringer said of Bill Cain's "How to Write a New Book for the Bible." "It's been amazing." Gehringer has been on board since the play's first reading at the Ojai Playwrights Conference. She plays Mary, a strong and proud woman who is dying of cancer.
?How to Write a New Book for the Bible?
Where: Segerstom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Previews end Oct. 25. Regular performances Oct. 26-Nov. 25. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. No evening performance Nov. 18.
How much: $20-$70
Gehringer, a familiar face at South Coast Repertory, will be presenting her work in front of her longtime fans when Cain's play opens Friday on the Costa Mesa theater's Segerstrom Stage.
Playing Mary is "pretty much what I've been doing for a while," said Gehringer, whose active career also includes recurring TV roles ("Justified," "Ally McBeal") and small but memorable parts on film. "I spent most of the last year with this play; we did productions of it at Berkeley Rep and Seattle Rep."
Cain, a priest and increasingly respected playwright (his Shakespearean mystery "Equivocation" has been frequently produced in the last few years), drew from his own life for the story.
Cain's autobiographical double decides to chronicle the last six months of his mother's life after he moves into her home to care for her. They have a history of disagreement and struggle, which are worked through over the course of the play.
Gehringer was suggested for the part of Mary by Seattle Repertory Theatre artistic director Robert Egan. But she had to persuade Cain she was the right actress for Mary.
"The character is described as 75 or older ? the older the better really. When I walked in (Cain) stared at me and said, 'What?' He thought I was too young."
"As it turns out, (Mary) plays different ages in the play: 40, 50, 60. It ended up being perfect for me."
As the play went through a round of readings in different cities, Gehringer sensed it was something special. "It had a profound effect on the audience. They wanted to talk about it; they wanted to talk about their own experiences too. It touches most people very deeply because we all go through something like this at some point in our lives."
"We've had such interesting talkbacks. This woman said to us, 'I've been through this a couple of times in the last year with people who were very close to me. I felt so alone. After seeing this play I don't feel alone anymore."
ANYTHING BUT ORDINARY
Cain's play came about as a result of his mother's death, Gehringer said.
"At one point in his life he went home to take care of his mother when she was sick. After she passed away he was trying to deal with his feelings. He decided to write a book with this title. It turned into a play after someone read it and told him it would be a wonderful story to stage."
Cain is a Jesuit priest, but Gehringer said his philosophy is sophisticated and includes humor and irreverence.
"Underneath it all, Bill has a deep love of God and the spirit. The play can be very funny at times though, and it can turn religion on its head."
Gehringer was drawn to the subject for personal reasons, too.
"I took care of my mother at the end. She was the age I am now; she wasn't even 60 when she passed away. It was right around the time my first husband died. When I was first acting the role, it touched on so many of those things. My mom and Mary were completely different kinds of people, but it's amazing what they shared ? a fierce sense of pride and dignity, and wanting to hold on to life."
It was emotionally difficult at first for Gehringer to make it through the readings.
"When I was first reading it I was crying a lot. I kept saying to Bill, 'Don't worry, I won't cry when I'm performing.' (Mary) is not a person who would ever cry for herself."
Gehringer was also attracted to the role because of its outward ordinariness, the actress said. "She's just a mom who lived in Syrcacuse, New York. She raised her kids there."
But to Gehringer, Mary's strength of spirit made her memorable.
"Once in Berkeley an audience member said, 'You never see a play about an ordinary person.' I thought, 'My God, I've come to think of her as anything but ordinary.' That's because when you get to know a person like Mary, you realize their strengths."
Cain revealed to Gehringer that the play's name came about because he wanted his story to be a celebration of life.
"Bill told me it's not a play about cancer or dying, it's about the vital importance of family and how to celebrate our lives. He says that everyone has a story that could belong in the Bible. Every 100 years each family should write a new chapter for the Bible about their own experiences."
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