Oh God, by Anat Gov. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Just choose a name. I'll answer to it."
Maureen Keiller as Ella; photo: provided
In conjunction with Israeli Stage, the Chester Theatre Company is presenting Anat Gov's OH GOD, a two person play about a depressed deity and an overly optimistic psychoanalyst. Gov, born in 1953, is the author of at least five other plays, one of which was sadly autobiographical concerning a woman with cancer who will not have chemotherapy. Gov herself died of cancer in 2012. Is there anyone reading this who hasn't tried speaking directly to God at some point? Whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you are religious or secular or agnostic or an atheist, almost everyone has had at least one attempt to make contact, ask a question, seek for an answer. It is often the perceived reaction that turns us one way or another.
This is certainly the case for Ella, a therapist and single mother of an autistic artistic youth who has never spoken a word. Ella has made her emotional and intellectual choices in life, resisting the need to commit a murder/suicide at one point, finding solace in work and plants. When a man arrives at her office in desperate need of a counciling session she is more than ready to turn disbelief into trust, to accept with faith and honor the mystical mastery presented to her by an elderly man suffering delusions of power. He wants a single, one-hour session in which she must solve his problems and lead him back into the light of life or, as he indicates to her, he will destroy mankind.
This is a comedy, by the way. This is a play, a 90 minute one-act wherein lie laughs galore. It is a also an examination of heart-break on both an intimate and a grand scale, solveable in the sweetest way through a single gesture that turns the tide for both characters. It is an illustration of the genius of playwright Anat Gov whose death was a true loss for the theater and, I am certain, for those close to her.
Maureen Keiller plays Ella with a simple single standard in her performance: be natural, be real. She plays the various stages of acceptance with a glorious honesty that makes her work both true and believable. There are moments in her portrayal of Ella where it is impossible to separate the actress and the character. Her bio indicates that she has appeared in many readings of this play in six states and "countless venues" and perhaps that is the key to her appearance here in Chester. She is as comfortable in the part and the costumes and the setting as she might be in her own home. Being that real can be a difficulty for some actors, but Keiller has somehow begun to own Ella and that makes all the difference. There are no reactions that seem acted. There is nothing forced in her work and even her understanding of who she is with and what is happening play for us as so genuine that the theatrical sense of eaves-dropping on our parts is exactly what is intended.
Will Lyman has also played in this part before alongside Keiller. With the possible exception of George Burns' work, I have never seen a more credible portrait of the deity by an actor. He has a few moments of emotional rage which play as real as his breakdown into tears. He makes God into an articulate and credible being who can say things that are hard to truly comprehend and yet come off as so genuine you could not refute them. When he smiles, there is a palpable warmth suffusing his face and it penetrates to the audience. When he is glum a sadness descends on the onlookers. There is great power in this performance. It is almost as though he is guided.
If he is, it is probably through the fine work of director Guy Ben-Aharon, Producing Artistic Directgor of Israeli Stage. Ben-Aharon moves his cast of talented players through the various stages of their mutual understanding with ease and a delicate use of space. Principally sitting in two chairs, their physical movement is more internal than it is a stageworthy traffic pattern. This director has forged real people from odd characters played by true actors. It's a triumph, really.
The show is helped by the lovely set designed by Christina Todesco and excellent costumes by Charles Schoonmaker and the sensitive lighting by Lara Dubin. Skylar Burks has provided a background sound plot that helps to illuminate time, place and personality of the encounter. One of those perfect evenings of theater that we always hope for, this play should not be missed. A must see for the unelightened and for those who enjoy thought-provoking plays.
Will Lyman as "Himself"; photo: provided
A modern day Eve and her Lord: Maureen Keiller and Will Lyman; photo: provided
OH GOD plays at the Chester Theatre, in the Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA through July 24. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-354-7770 or go on line at www.chestertheatre.org.