Ella is a psychotherapist and the mother of a severely autistic son. She also has a pointedly fraught relationship with God. Imagine her surprise, her fear and even her anger when God comes to her as a new patient who insists on solving his millennia-long problems in one session.
That is the existential premise of Anat Gov’s play, “Oh God,” which features Maureen Keiller as Ella and Will Lyman as God. Produced and directed for Israeli Stage by the company’s founder, Guy Ben-Aharon, the two actors have performed together in over 25 locations in six states. Ben-Aharon initially brought Gov’s play to the United States as a tribute to the playwright who died at the age of 59 in 2012.
Billed as a comedy, the play also features poignant and bittersweet moments. God is initially resistant to therapy, and Ella is reluctant to take on the strange patient. Alternately fascinated and exasperated with each other, both therapist and patient threaten to end the session early at various points. But there is a palpable spiritual chemistry between them that could be considered faith. Indeed, the play can be experienced as an exploration of contemporary spirituality. In a recent interview, Ben-Aharon described Gov’s script as an “examination of the meeting point of our quest and desire for self-understanding through therapy and a more biblical quest for meaning through God.”
Spirituality can be an amorphous subject to work with, but Gov maintains a delicate balance, never allowing her actors to stumble into Freudian clichés or outright ridiculousness. Ella veers between exasperation and empathy for her troubled patient, who is confused, depressed and even suicidal. Hearing that God wishes to die, Ella’s concern for her patient turns to anger as she reminds him that his death means the end of humankind. If God went through with killing himself, he would be breaking his promise to Noah to never attempt to destroy humanity again. In response, God has harsh words for Noah, the drunkard.
Consistently invoking biblical stories, Ella carves out space for God to lay out what troubles him. It turns out that God has feelings like anyone else. He was jealous when Adam turned his attention to Eve. He was ambivalent about the excruciating tests through which he put Job, until he admits that he succumbed to Satan’s manipulations. But above all else, God hasn’t felt like himself for 2,000 years. Although it’s never explicitly stated, one wonders if this God hasn’t felt upstaged by Jesus or Mohammed. Or perhaps the destruction of the Temple disoriented him.
In any case, by the end of the session, Ella has talked God out of killing himself. And she has diagnosed him with something far more serious—God has surrendered his authority to the very people who have made a mess of the world he gave them. When the 50-minute hour is up, God pays Ella her 400 shekels and leaves a bit more enlightened. But Ella is not quite ready to let him go until she gives him something he has never experienced in his 6,000 years of existence—a long, cathartic hug.
As with all Israeli Stage productions, the evening ended with a discussion. The moderators for the talk were Rabbi Suzie Jacobson of Temple Israel in Boston and Jennifer Knust, an associate professor of religion at Boston University. Comments from the audience and from Rabbi Jacobson suggested that many were grappling with God’s portrayal as a gray-haired white man. Many also reacted to God’s powerlessness and Satan’s influence over him. Rabbi Jacobson pointed out that the Zohar notes that evil is an innate part of God. Professor Knust admired how Gov wove text throughout the play and reflected on scripture’s inconsistent portrayals of God.
In our interview, Ben-Aharon recalled a staged reading of “Oh God” in Ithaca, New York, in which Muslim, Catholic and Hillel student unions attended. “Three faiths responded to the show that night, and it was incredibly moving,” he said. “The thing that works about the show is that it allows that meeting point between people so they’re able to constructively talk about each other’s faith.”