New play at Chester Theatre Company finds God in search of God

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CHESTER >> God — the relentlessly challenging Old Testament God of anger, wrath and vengeance — is not quite Himself in Anat Gov's uneven drama, "Oh God," which is being given a hit-and-miss co-production by Chester Theatre Company and Boston-based Israeli Stage at Chester Town Hall through this weekend.

It turns out that it's not easy being the Supreme Being and so He has turned to a professional, a therapist named Ella, for help. Her primary qualification for treating Him, he tells her, is precisely because she is a non-believer. She has lost her faith in God.

Ella (Maureen Keiller in a performance that is as hit-and-miss as Gov's play) is not exactly having an easy time of it. She is divorced, Her ex has moved on to a new life with a new wife, and Ella is raising their autistic son on her own — with love, compassion and an aching sense of loss of possibility;a sense so severe that it, at one point, led her to the edge of an abyss.

God's loss also is profound. At the edge of an abyss of his own, He has grown frustrated, impatient, uncomprehending of the evils humankind has committed in God's name. He is resentful of a humankind that cries out to God only when they have committed some heinous act and are looking for a way out. His despair has led him to contemplate, seriously wiping out humankind, ALL humankind, for once and for all.

But that's not all. "You were missing something," Ella says to God during their discussion of the moments that led to the creation of Man. "I'm looking for that something. What were you missing in that huge enchanted safari park of yours?" she asks, referring to the Garden of Eden.

That search eventually forms the arc of Gov's play as Ella methodically leads God to discover the precise nature of what is gnawing away at Him, what is causing his despair. God is in search not only of Man but of God as well. And as Ella leads God to the source of his own despair, she finds the source of hers as well.

It's no accident that Ella's home office is surrounded by an Edenic setting (evocatively designed by Cristina Tedesco). Hanging plants extend outward from her office into her garden, which a garden, which she tends with nurturing compassion (especially in the absence of rain), a compassion she cannot quite spare on herself. God's journey here, in a sense, becomes a restoration of Eden before the chaos and in spite of a humankind run amok.

"Oh God" moves in fits and starts and struggles through a predictably awkward opening in which God (the impressive Will Lyman) tries to persuade an understandably incredulous Ella that He is, in fact, who he says He is, resorting at one point to a demonstration of rudimentary power.

Despite an approach by Keiller that, on the whole, is, at best, curiously tentative, it is clear that Ella is good at what she does. Her patient, probing, leading questioning and unrelenting style has the effect of making her distinguished client (Lyman in an expertly crafted, shrewdly measured performance), by turns, uneasy, defensive, testy, needy, petulant, combative, insecure, lonely, isolated, afraid, vulnerable.

Back and forth they go, God, often shifting reflexively between offense and defense. Clearly, Man has been created in God's image.

Just as Gov's writing gathers steam. it lets up, before gathering steam again, before and so on for the duration of the play's 90-or-so minutes. "Oh God" generates its most force and dramatic vigor near the end as Ella leads a reluctant God through His treatment of Job; questioning why God went silent after Job; speculating why the horrors God visited upon his most devoted, faithful, righteous follower loom large. Job, as Ella sees it, was a turning point. The episode and its aftermath become the key to discovering, acknowledging and releasing what is at the root of God's anguish.

There is an underlying sense that in writing "Oh God" in 2008, four years before her death of cancer at the age of 59, the Israeli-born Gov was working through some issues of her own with regard to her own relationship with God, God's relationship with her, and the broader issue of God's relationship with humankind. She finds an answer, a self-evident answer that is as simple as it is complex; an answer whose reassurance falls like rain on a moisture-deprived garden.

What: "Oh God" by Anat Gov. Translated by Anthony Berris. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon

With: Maureen Keiller, Will Lyman

Designers: Lara Dubin, lighting; Charles Schoonmaker, costume; Cristina Tedesco, scenic; Skylar Burks, sound

Who: Chester Theatre Company in partnership with Israeli Stage

Where: Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester

When: Through July 23. Evenings — Thursday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Friday and Sunday at 2

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes (no intermission)

Tickets: $37.50 (students $10)

How: (1-800) 595-4849; chestertheatre.org


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