“It seems to me the world needs this story right now,” says adapter/director Aaron Posner about the upcoming Seattle premiere of The Chosen at The Seattle Repertory Theatre. Posner adapted Chaim Potok’s now-classic 1967 novel with the author.
Since its premiere in the 1998-99 season at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, The Chosen has had over 20 productions, many of them in the last couple of years. With the red/blue divide as today’s ubiquitous national descriptor and a persistent my-way-or-the-highway approach to public discourse, Posner sees an even greater urgency in Potok’s work than when it was first published. ”
The book is about bringing people together—on a human level, on a social level, on a psychological level, on a religious level—on every level that boundaries exist,” he says.
Potok’s debut piece of fiction broke ground nearly four decades ago, becoming a national bestseller while portraying the previously unfamiliar world of Orthodox Jews to a diverse, popular audience.
In World War II Brooklyn, an unlikely friendship blossomed between two teens. Reuven is the son of a Talmudic scholar who believes in connection to and interaction with the world outside of yeshiva and shul.
Just five blocks away, Danny, the son of a charismatic Hasidic rabbi, struggles to reconcile his father’s expectations and his own aspirations. A baseball game initially pits the boys against one another, but at Reuven’s father’s urging, the two boys form a deep bond rooted in intellectual pursuit, philosophical discussion and eventually compassion.
Posner’s initial interest in The Chosen came when he began to examine his relationship to his own Jewishness.
“I refer to myself as Jewish, and I identify as Jewish but not as religiously Jewish, so I began thinking about what I meant when I called myself Jewish,” recalls Posner. Though they were both Philadelphians, Posner met Potok at a Chicago performance in which Potok’s daughter was performing.
“I had been reading Roth and Malamud and Sholom Alecheim, but I thought it would be great to ask Chaim Potok for advice for something Jewish to adapt—and also a great excuse to be able to meet with him,” chuckles Posner. “I thought that I should probably reread some of his books that I hadn’t read since high school. I read The Chosen and thought, I don’t need to ask him for ideas—I need to ask him for permission.”
Posner’s request for permission was bolstered by a worthy resume. His previous literary adaptations included Echoes of the Jazz Age, created from short works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Fats Waller, and Dorothy Parker, among others. In addition to adapting Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster and Steve Lopez’s Third & Indiana, Posner was the co-founder and artistic director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre.
The Chosen had been adapted a couple of times before Posner approached the material—as a 1981 film starring Rod Steiger and during that same decade as a sprawling musical. Posner describes himself as a director who adapts texts for performance and not as a playwright. His directorial mind first confronted the material thinking of the inherent challenges in staging a baseball game, passionate but intricate Talmud study, and large communities at yeshiva and synagogue. Then the “aha” moment came.
“Oh, I see,” he exclaimed, “It’s big and there’s all these characters, but this is two fathers and two sons. That’s really all that’s going on here.”
This Chosen bears little resemblance to the previous grander approaches, with Posner describing the material as a simple square. Two young men and two older men share the stage with an adult Reuven narrating and taking on the roles of a few incidental characters. Posner is gracious and appreciative of Potok’s role as a collaborator, describing the late author as supportive but also deferential to Posner’s theatrical and directorial experience.
In recalling their work together, Posner says that their contact was by e-mail or in face-to face meetings—with one notable exception. As is often the case, Posner wrote a variety of endings. After reading one particular variation, Potok was compelled to phone Posner to strongly dissuade him from a potentially disastrous sentimental ending.
“Because Chaim wrote so much from the heart,” explains Posner, “he was extremely careful never to become sentimental.”
At its core, Posner sees the play’s meaning in complex terms that defy easy sentimentality. Though not in the original text of the novel, Posner uses the Talmudic quote, “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” as a thematic underpinning for the play and the production.
“This is the idea that more than one thing can be true at the same time and that reconciliation is possible even when two different truths exist,” says Posner. “Potok asks us to reconsider the idea that only one thing is possible, and I see this idea in loving, respectful opposition to fundamentalism.”
A Eugene, Oregon native, Posner is thrilled to be making his Seattle directorial debut. His grandfather Philip moved to Seattle in the 1940s. His father Michael and mother Sharon Blank Posner met through West Coast Jewish youth group connections. Posner’s step-grandmother Fran Posner was an advertising rep for the Jewish Transcript for over three decades before her retirement in 1990.
The Chosen’s growing stage life has included productions at Jewish and regional theatres. Posner is gratified by the response from a wide variety of communities, proving the old dictum that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes.
Testifying to the timeliness of the material, a concurrent production, co-directed by Marcus Walker and Rebecca Osman, is on the boards at The Lakewood Playhouse.