Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
O My God! was written in Hebrew by Anat Gov, a prolific Israeli playwright who died in 2012, just a few days shy of her 59th birthday. It premiered in 2008 in Tel Aviv, and since 2011 its English translation has been making the rounds of regional theater companies in the United States, now happily arriving in the Twin Cities. There is a lot more to the play than a setup and a punchline. It offers a series of arguments about what God expects of mankind and what mankind expects of God, trying to sort out the reasons neither party in the relationship has been terribly satisfied.
The therapist God selects to bare his soul to is Ella (Laura Stearns). Ella is a secular Jew, the type of atheist who nonetheless looks up at the sky and complains, jokingly, to God for not coming through with sorely needed rain. She is also a single parent whose husband left after the birth of their son Lior (Sean Carroll), who is diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Lior is in his early teens and clearly intelligent, with musical giftswe see and hear him play the cello for ourselvesand artistic talent, but his behavior is that of a much younger child, his motor skills are awkward, and he is completely non-verbal. He appears to understand his mother but has never responded with even a single word.
Apparently, Ella sees patients at her home while Lior is at school. She has made an exception today because the gentleman who called sounded so desperate, and so mysterioushe would only identify himself as "G." When God (James. A Williams) arrives, he continues to withhold his identity, and when Ella finally gets him to reveal who he is, she responds "That's alright, I've had a lot of patients who feel that way." God is insistent, stating that "I don't feel like God, I am God!." Once she is convinced, Ella is not at all confident that she, of all people, will be able to help him, but God prevails  (well, c'mon, he's God, and in the person of James A. Williams, a smooth talker and mighty presence).
The play continues in real time, as Ella allows a standard fifty-minute therapy session to run just a bit over time, prodding God to lay his cards on the table. He has a lot to sort through: what prompted him to create the heavens and earth, why he felt compelled to create man, and how the introduction of women into the scene changed God's dynamic with his creation. Some topics are explored with depththe expulsion from the garden, Cain and Abel, and particularly Job. Other's are tossed in to provide one-line jokes. The focus is on God of the Old Testament, with the briefest mention of Jesus and Muhammad. Ella proposes several theories about where things went wrong, and bluntly points out God's own failings to him. God pushes back and gets Ella to own up to having strayed off of her own path, but she is undeterred from peeling back the multiple layers of God's defenses.
The play is consistently engaging, with commanding performances by Laura Stearns and James A. Williams. Robert Dorfman has directed the piece to be played straight, never treating the surreal premise as if it were anything other than real, never suggesting a wink, which makes both the humor and the heart within the piece all the more potent.
Early on, Stearns conveys her deep love, edging on awe, for Lior, along with her natural feistiness. Her earnestness, without a trace of artifice, makes the absurdity of sitting face to face with someone she doesn't believe exists, and being able to engage with him, not as an awesome and all-powerful presence, but just another client, feel weirdly plausible. Sean Carroll's role as Lior is very small, but he plays the part with great authenticity.
Williams struts in with the arrogance of a Greek or Roman god, a god with all manner of human faults, and suffering the despair of a human whose heart has been broken. He speaks persuasively of the God he was, all powerful and all knowing, while demonstrating a God whose powers are waning, to the point that he turns to this mortal who does not even believe in him for salvation. Stearns and Williams have a great chemistry that makes them delightful intellectual sparring partners.
Michael Hoover designed the patio behind Ella's home, and it is busy with wicker and wrought iron furniture, a large stability ball which both Ella and God sit upon in the course of God's therapy session, a framed poster from the Godfather movie, and varied clutter. The wall behind it is painted in a sweeping blue, and pink, with bubble-like patterns, and several of Lior's paintings are taped upon the wall. The lighting designed by Matthew Gawryk and sound designed by Adam Wernick bring a sense of the real world to this vibrant and somewhat surreal setting.
For all of the spark and wit in the script, and fascinating discussion of portions of the Old Testament, I was less than fully satisfied with the ending of O My God!. God's decisions and responses across the millennia had been inconsistent, more dependent on his mood or feelings for a particular person than a belief or values system. At the play's end, as the therapy clock runs out, Ella forms a conclusion, but my sense is that if they kept going another thirty minutes, a different conclusion might be reached, and in thirty more, yet another. After all, how could anyone unravel all the emotional turmoil dispatched by God in fifty minutes? I found the ending to be "feel good" more than "feel right."
The play was originally titled Oh God!, and that title is still used in some productions, while others, as at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, have used the title O My God!. I could not find a reason for the use of slightly different titles, but I rather prefer O My God!. It implies a personal relationshipmy Godas opposed to an impersonal deity. If nothing else, at the end of the play, Ella, who scoffed at the notion, has a vividly personal relationship with God. Perhaps all the wrangling over God's despair was really meant to provide Ella with a light that brightens her life.
Whatever the meaningand having God as one of the characters in what is basically a two-character play does prompt one to seek meaningO My God! is a warm, accessible comedy that entertains as it challenges its audience to think and to question, wholly in keeping with Jewish custom.
O My God! runs through November 17, 2019, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $23.00 -$38.00, $12.00 Student rush for any performance with valid ID. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Playwright: Anat Gov, translated by Anthony Berris and Margalit Rodgers; Director: Robert Dorfman.; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume and Properties: Design: Lisa Imbryk; Lighting Design: Matthew Gawryk; Original Music and Sound Design: Adam Wernick; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Assistant Director: Michael Torsch; Stage Manager: Katie Sondrol.
Cast: Sean Carroll (Lior), Laura Stearns (Ella), James. A. Williams (God).