New play at Chester Theatre Company imagines God in need of therapy
CHESTER — God comes to see a therapist. She is a tough, clear-headed middle-aged woman watering a hanging plant and looking for rain — and she does not believe in Him.
He is an Old Testament God, a God of rage and punishment and glittering spears — "Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?"
But today he walks into the garden of a secular Jewish woman who likes to say either there is no God or she wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley.
God is looking for analysis. And his therapist has an hour to convince Him not to unmake the universe.
Israeli playwright Anat Gov offers this conundrum in "Oh God" at Chester Theatre Company through July 24, directed by Guy Ben-Aharon, founder and producing artistic director of Israeli Stage, which first produced this play in Boston.
Ben-Aharon created the Israeli Stage to produce Israeli plays and introduce Israeli art and culture, to show a country more contemporary and varied than it often appears in American headlines.
Gov, like Ella in the play, was secular. She knew the Bible well and found it beautiful and troubling.
"She was not a religious person but a great lover of the Book," Ben-Aharon said during a break in rehearsals.
God appears to Ella because she has struggled with him and argued with him and cursed him and gone on talking to him. It's more interesting for therapy and healing, Ben-Aharon said. And God has secrets to hide.
God as a patient knows his therapist's bitterest nightmares, and the balance between them shifts with humor, sharp analysis and sadness, as Ella, taking God back to his childhood and adolescence, looks at his speech to Cain while Abel was still alive.
"For three thousand years the greatest commentators have been sweating gallons and putting themselves through hoops to interpret that incomprehensible verse, and you expect Cain, the first baby on earth, to understand it?," she asks God.
The confrontation will push them to the limits of his Old Testament image and Ella's professional role. She is a therapist, but this is a play, and Gov will amply allow her half of the conversation. Like Gov herself, she is willing to face the hardest questions head-on.
Gov died of cancer in 2012, not long after writing "Happy Ending," a play about a woman with cancer who refuses chemotherapy. In its next season, the Israeli Stage chose "Oh God" as a tribute to her. Ben-Aharon reached out to two award-winning stage and film actors in Boston, Maureen Keiller and Will Lyman.
They started with a staged reading in 2013, Ben-Aharon said, and he loved the essence of the show.
"If we could relinquish our powers we would act out of compassion," he said. "It's a message missing today."
They performed the reading in half a dozen states, he said, in Boston, at Boston University, at Brown, and more than once in memory of a student, including one who had died of an illness that wasted his body while his mind stayed clear. His parents thanked Ben-Aharon afterward. They told him the play had a healing power.
It shows the strength of compassion as an action.
"It's easy to give up on the world," he said, "when you see the news day-to-day. You think, what can I do to change this? Change starts with small acts, with talking."
He and the cast have held reflections after many shows. At Cornell, Ben-Aharon said, in a performance hosted by the Jewish and Catholic and Muslim student unions, 250 people came and talked about what God was to them. Secular people sat down with women in hijabs, ministers and Jewish students all reflecting together.
What someone believes can reveal them at their most heightened and barest times.
"Who do we allow God to be? He may be a reflection of who we need," Ben-Aharon said. "What does it mean when we say Oh God in joyous times, in moments of passion, in times of anger or frustration — who are we appealing to, or what are we asking for?"
These readings and conversations moved him to go farther. As he was planning his 2016 season, he said, he felt a lack of diversity in the theaters around him. Israel has many women playwrights, and he committed to a year of work by women, including the fully staged production of "Oh God."
Then he met Daniel Elihu Kramer, producing artistic director of Chester Theatre Company, and Kramer invited him to bring "Oh God" to the Berkshires. And God walked into a town hall in the hilltowns.
In Gov's hands, God is a man, made flesh, and he feels pain. He may even fail.
Ella questions him on the commandments: "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me."
"So if that isn't fear of abandonment, I'm not a therapist."
Ella and God are talking face to face.
"They have a presence, a contact, a connection — it's what we all strive for," Ben-Aharon said. "Understanding, warmth, anger, frustration, love."
So a play about a woman and God turns on a growing relationship between two people. Someone in the audience once said "you know what God is?" and pointed back and forth between two people: You? No. Me? No. Us.
The root is belief in each other, Ben-Aharon said.
"Two humans believing in each other is an act of good," he said. "It's an act of faith."
In the rehearsal hall, Lyman straightened to face new truths and a new day. Keiller looked up, listening.
And outside it started to rain, right on cue.
What: "Oh God" by Anat Gov. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon
Who: Chester Theatre Company and Israeli Stage
Where: Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester
When: Now through July 24. Evenings — Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8. matinmees — Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 2
Tickets: $37.50 (students $10)
How: (1-800-595-4849; chestertheatre.org
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