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‘O my God’ explores faith, the state of the world — and God

ALSO: “The Song of Summer” at Mixed Blood; Fall Open Studios in Northeast Minneapolis; an evening with Jonatha Brooke; and more.

Ella (Laura Stearns) is a therapist to God (James A. Williams) in “Oh My God!”
Ella (Laura Stearns) is a therapist to God (James A. Williams) in “O My God!”
Photo by Sarah Whiting

At the talkback following Wednesday’s performance of “O my God!” at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, director Robert Dorfman described Anat Gov’s play as “almost Talmudic.” Laura Stearns, who plays the role of Ella, a psychologist, commented on the amount of text. “It’s two people talking to each other for 90 minutes. Oh, the lines!”

Young actor Sean Carroll is Ella’s son, Lior. Because Lior plays the cello, Carroll had to learn. “It’s not easy,” Carroll said. “You have to extend the stand, tighten the strings, rosin the bow and put the bow on all four strings.” Lior has autism; so does Carroll. But Lior has less ability than Carroll. Dorfman praised the subtlety of Carroll’s performance.

For James A. Williams, who plays the role of God, preparation was challenging. “Usually, you can punch up roles on the internet,” Williams said. For example, if you’re playing Winston Churchill, you can read profiles and watch videos. You can’t do that with the Almighty. “I put ‘God’ into the search engine and the wheel is still spinning.”

Gov’s play, which premiered in Tel Aviv in 2008, has been called a “divine comedy.” There are moments of humor, but it’s a serious exploration of faith, the state of the world and our understanding of God. Set in a modern-day Israeli suburb, it leaves you with a lot to think about. It’s also very talky, with the back-and-forth between Ella and God so rapid-fire at times you wish they would take a breath so you could ponder something just said.

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As the play begins, Ella is preparing for her next appointment, a new client who would only say “Call me G,” when he phoned. She has a feeling he’s “someone senior – head of security services or Mossad.” When God enters, he won’t immediately tell her who he is. “I am who I am,” he says – a verse from Exodus, the first of many from the Hebrew Bible (and the Christian Old Testament).

Familiarity with the Bible isn’t required, but recognizing quotes and references will deepen your appreciation for the play. Ella is non-observant and claims not to believe in God, but she knows the Bible very well (Israeli children study it as literature in school), and she doesn’t hesitate to throw God’s words back at him.

God is dressed like Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in “The Godfather.” (The reason for that is made clear.) He seems agitated. “I have to talk to someone, or something terrible will happen!” he says. He finally admits he’s God. After some convincing and a God-like trick, Ella believes him. A true professional, she snaps into therapist mode.

And we’re off.

God is depressed. He’s been depressed for 2,000 years. In fact, he hasn’t really been happy since he created human beings on the Sixth Day, which he calls “Bloody Friday.” Humans have been a big disappointment, and they’re ruining his beautiful creation. He’s tired of people telling him their troubles. He’s considering breaking the promise he made to Noah, that he would never again send another flood to destroy all life on earth. He wants to die.

God has come to Ella for help, but only one session. “Forty minutes to save the world?” she exclaims. “Even Bruce Willis had more time than that!” Why did he choose her? Because she has addressed him since she was a child. “I heard every word,” God says. “You never failed to reproach me, but you made me laugh. And you never asked me for anything.”

She is, of course, the right choice. Unlike God, Ella won’t give up. He never had parents, so she can’t start by exploring his relationship with them (“Who are we going to blame?”). But she can and does ask him about his first memory, his feelings, what he was looking for when he made Adam, why he made Eve, his need for love, his fear of being abandoned.

Lior (Sean Carroll) meets God (James A. Williams), as his mother Ella (Laura Stearns) looks on.
Photo by Sarah Whiting
Lior (Sean Carroll) meets God (James A. Williams), as his mother Ella (Laura Stearns) looks on.
She asks if he ever felt compassion for Adam and Eve after he banished them from Eden. Why he was constantly stirring up trouble between brothers, starting with Cain and Abel. Why he was so horrible to Job.

God’s temper flares. “What kind of psychotherapist are you?” he shouts. “What kind of God are you?” she counters. He complains that she can’t say anything good about him. “You’re a great artist,” she says. But “could it be the greater an artist someone is, the worse a man?” She ticks off three examples: Picasso. Dostoyevsky. Woody Allen.

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Gov imagined a wide-ranging, no-holds-barred, probing and intelligent conversation with God. One she herself might have had, or maybe did have over her lifetime. One that’s worth experiencing, especially when it’s presented thoughtfully and well, as MJTC is doing now.

During the talkback, Dorfman joked that Williams had been typecast as God. Williams is a distinguished actor of seemingly effortless gravitas and presence; if you’re going to cast God as a man, he’s your guy. Laura Stearns makes us believe in the possibility of this impossible encounter – that one could look God in the eye, even call him out, without instantly turning to dust. Sean Carroll is the second actor with a disability we’ve seen on stage this month. The first was Carey Cox as Laura Wingfield in the Guthrie’s “Glass Menagerie.” Carroll isn’t on stage much, but when he is, he’s terrific.

“O my God!” continues through Nov. 17 at the Highland Park Community Center. FMI and tickets ($23-38).

The picks

Lauren Yee
Courtesy of Mixed Blood Theatre
Lauren Yee
Opens tonight (Friday, Nov. 1) at Mixed Blood Theatre: Lauren Yee’s “The Song of Summer.” Mixed Blood launches its 44th season with a rom-com by superstar playwright Lauren Yee, who considers the Twin Cities her literary home, who’s one of today’s most-produced playwrights, and whose literary prizes this year alone total more than $400,000, so far. (She recently won a $275,000 Doris Duke Artist’s Award.) You don’t want to miss this. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($34 and radical hospitality).

Tonight through Sunday in Northeast Minneapolis: Fall Open Studios. While Art Attack is taking place at the Northrup King Building, other arts buildings will be hosting their own open studios. Stop by Solar Arts, Open Casket, the California Building, and the Thorp Building to see what’s up with them. Check out the Artblock 2019 Holiday Sale at the old General Mills Laboratories. All Friday 5-10 p.m., Saturday noon-8 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m.

Saturday at Burroughs Community School: 60 Artists on 50th. A curated, “cultivated” show of 60 artists working in all kinds of media: wood, clay, leather, metal, textiles, paints, printing and more. All under one roof. You could do a lot of your holiday shopping here, just saying. 1601 W. 50th St. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. FMI. Free.

Saturday the Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater: An Evening with Jonatha Brooke. Along with her hits, the revered singer-songwriter has hinted she’ll perform songs from new musicals still in the works. This will be a special evening in an intimate setting. Doors at 6, show at 7. FMI and tickets ($30).

Saturday at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery at St. Catherine University: Opening reception for Linda Brooks, “lifecycles objects,” and Pao Houa Her, “After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw.” For nearly four decades, Brooks, recipient of NEA, MSAB and McKnight fellowships, has been photographing objects that evoke memories and emphasize relationships. This show is a progression of ideas. Born in Laos, raised in St. Paul, Her uses photography to explore the original loss of the Hmong homeland and a recent, traumatic and divisive incident in the Hmong community. 5-7 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: National Lutheran Choir: Mozart’s Requiem. Mozart’s mighty mass for the dead, performed by the choir, a full orchestra, and soloists Sonja Tengblad, Clara Osowski, David Walton and Dashon Burton. 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wayzata Community Church, 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi. Pre-concert lecture an hour before the music. FMI and tickets ($42; children and students free).

Monday at the U’s McNamara Alumni Center: Danielle Evans Reading. Evans is the author of “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self,” co-winner of the 2011 PEN Robert W. Bingham Prize for a first book and a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 selection. 7 p.m. Free. Evans’ reading ends an amazing Fall 2019 UMN English Writers Series.