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A Play by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

When we peer back through the millennia whom do we see?  Two women standing at the very beginning of our history, Sarah and Hagar.  Sarah conspired to overcome her barrenness and provide Abraham with an heir through her maidservant Hagar. From the start their tumultuous relationship effectively cast Abraham to the sidelines, so much so that Hagar went on to become a matriarch of her own people, the Ishmaelites. The joyous miracle of Sarah’s pregnancy at age 90 is soured by her tragic death subsequent to the near sacrifice of her only child, Isaac.  The exiled Hagar seems to disappear only to be reunited with the widowed Abraham as Keturah.  For all the explanations found in midrashim and commentaries these women and their complex relationship are mysterious and unfathomable.  Therefore this new play comes as a welcome breath of fresh air.  Ten Imaginings of Sarah and Hagar by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer and collaborators Deborah Baer Mozes (dramaturg) and Juliet I. Spitzer (composer) attempts to pierce the darkness and shape a modern understanding of this elemental tale.  The play’s success is thrilling, vibrant and deeply moving.

The 90 minute play is divided into ten episodes.  Each reveals a different aspect of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham and most provocatively, God.  After a short prologue the play begins in the present…in heaven.  Sarah is seen reclining, her face covered with a mud mask and clad in a white bathrobe, as if she is in a luxurious spa.  Hagar enters and they start to chat, complaining about how terrible the service is in the heavenly realm.  Slowly they recognize one another, begin to squabble like the old days thousands of years ago. Finally they remember the trials and tribulations they also shared so long ago.  “Water under the bridge.” After all, they both went on to create a people.

Still, the service was awful, they couldn’t even get a cocktail.  Hagar uses her cell phone to call the archangel Gabriel to complain.  She is shocked by his answer.  The angels are overwhelmed,  so many souls coming all at once… there was a terrible bombing… the fighting.  Sarah and Hagar had forgotten… the fighting doesn’t stop.  All they can do is “Sit. Look. Remember… together. Until it ends.”  Suddenly we realize their relationship and rocky history is terribly relevant to us.

Susan Moses as Sarah; Kimberly Fairbanks as Hagar Photo by Jordan Cassway
Susan Moses as Sarah; Kimberly Fairbanks as Hagar, photo by Jordan Cassway

Sarah, played by Susan Moses, is wonderfully aged, her wrinkled face full of wit and defiance.  She is the perfect foil to Hagar, played by Kimberly Fairbanks, a wise, independent and determined younger woman.  Both actresses put in sterling performances.

The next scene Hagar portrays an older servant in Pharaoh’s palace who is preparing Sarah to be taken to Pharaoh.  Slowly Sarah understands what is happening and becomes more and more terrified as she realizes she will be ravished by the ruthless monarch.  Hagar empathizes but is powerless.  Sarah is desperate, pleading for Hagar to tell Abraham to save her, protesting that Abraham could not have known what was going to happen to her as a result of his plan to pass her off as his sister.  In the frenzied interaction between the two women we slowly see how heartless Abraham’s plan was.  As she is led to Pharaoh she is told by Hagar, “There’s no way.  No way out.”

Scene after scene, the biblical text is uncovered to expose the difficult reality that both women faced.  There unfolds a dialogue in which Sarah demands more and more work from the very pregnant Hagar. They argue as Hagar protests about how pregnant she is and cannot work as fast or as much as Sarah demands.  A confrontation ensues and Hagar flees Sarah’s wrath.  But Sarah is emotionally decimated and finally cries out, “Why, God why not choose Sarah? (pause) I wanted… to fulfill the promise. But every day, I grow older. Worthless, old (pause). What is wrong with me God?  Why not…choose me? Choose me? Choose me! Choose me!”  The pain and agony of her fate is overwhelming.

In a startlingly and insightful way this play follows the age-old midrashic formula by opening up the biblical text to life’s realities, filling in the blanks and providing the nitty-gritty details to bring the characters alive.  About halfway into the play we see Sarah squatting in the birthing position, struggling to finally give birth to Isaac with the help of Hagar, still her loyal handmaiden.  It is terribly difficult for this very old woman, pushing in spite of the pain, protesting that she is too old to do this, challenging God’s will to impose upon her this unnatural miracle. The stark reality of this short scene between the two women transforms the simple Biblical line, “And Sarah conceived and bore to Abraham a son in his old age…” into the complex and painful trial that only a woman can experience and understand.

10 Imaginings of Sarah and Hagar begins with the spare biblical text and imagines complete women with complex lives and an even more complex set of relationships to each other and their God.  By the playwright’s creativity we are confronted with emotional truths that we could only have half imagined.  We hear Sarah pleading with God after she has realized what Abraham is about to do to Isaac.  She cries:

“You can’t do this to me,
A mother,
At last, in my age —

Take MY life.
Take my life NOW
And give my child his days!
Fulfill your promise,
Grant him children numerous
As the stars of the night.”

From our modern perspective these words ring terribly true, her desperation and pain becomes ours confronting aspects of an unknowable God as we struggle with our own tragedies. It is the process of entering into the emotional lives of these matriarchs that force us to reassess many of our assumptions about the biblical narrative. Our familiar text will never seem the same.

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