Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 2004
Two fathers, two sons, two worlds.
“The Chosen,” the 1967 debut novel of Chaim Potok, is about the nature of choice; what’s chosen in terms of a path, a faith, a friendship. The best-seller was the first book from a major publisher to portray Orthodox Judaism in the United States . It was recast as a movie in 1981 and a short-lived Off-Broadway musical in 1988. In 1999, the author collaborated with writer/director Aaron Posner for a stage play adaptation, which won Philadelphia ‘s Barrymore Award as Best New Play.
“It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read,” says David Ellenstein, artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre. He liked the play enough to direct it four times; his latest production opens in Solana Beach on September 4.
“Potok wanted to make it into a play because he felt there were important parts of the story that could serve as a healing for a world that’s broken,” Ellenstein explains. The acclaimed author lived to see the premiere production; he died in 2002.
“The piece explores the concept that two truths can exist at the same moment and still be equally valid,” Ellenstein continues. “That’s why I’m doing it now. The world is more polarized than ever. There’s widespread intolerance of other viewpoints, ideologies, cultures and ways of thinking. People talk of ‘right’ and wrong,’ and ‘true faith.’ This play is more relevant now than when it was written. We all need to know that it’s possible for others to believe differently from us and still be right.”
Onstage, the story is framed as a memory play. It opens with the older Reuven Malter looking back at the Brooklyn of his childhood in the 1940s. We’re transported back with him to the waning years of World War II and the high school baseball field where young Reuven, star pitcher for the assimilated Jewish kids’ team, meets his match in slugger Danny Saunders, who plays for the Hasidic team. They square off on the ballfield, but soon the fierce competition gives way to tentative and then deep-rooted friendship, under the watchful eyes of the boys’ concerned fathers. The elder Malter is a widowed, serious Talmudic scholar and a leader in the more secular Jewish community. The elder Saunders is the survivor of a terrible Russian pogrom, a revered Hasidic rabbi who’s grooming his son to be his successor.
Each boy is bound to depart from the path ‘chosen’ by his father. But the title also reflects a Talmudic precept about the singular importance of choosing a friend. Although the book is very much about matters of faith, the play The Chosen focuses more on the textures of the men’s relationships — not only the mutual admiration between the boys, but also the loving, open rapport between the bright, inquisitive Reuven and his wise, admiring father, in contrast with the unspoken affection buried beneath the constrained silence in the Saunders household. Most of all, the play is about fathers and sons, rigidity and modernity. To be sure, this coming-of-age story isn’t ‘ethnic entertainment’ that will only appeal to Jewish audiences.
“Good plays and stories are set in specific worlds, and from them one gets the truth of what is human,” says Ellenstein. “My father always repeated a famous quote: ‘Beware of who you make your enemies — you will become like them.’
“In every production I’ve done — in Arizona, Florida, Los Angeles and New Jersey — whether for Jewish or mixed or in one case, a group of Catholic school kids, people are deeply moved by this story. They feel they’ve experienced something that gets them more connected to what it means to be human. They look at the person next to them in a different, more tolerant way. This play absolutely does that, time after time.”
In Ellenstein’s recent Paper Mill Playhouse (NJ) and Coconut Grove (FL) productions, the Rabbi was played by the renowned actor/singer Theodore Bikel. In Los Angeles and Phoenix, it was Detroit actor Robert Grossman, who will reprise the role at North Coast Rep, close on the heels of his lead performance in the theater’s summer production of the wacky Mafia comedy, Breaking Legs.
“He’s enormously moving and funny in the role,” says Ellenstein. The critics agreed.
Reviews called the play “powerful and involving,” “rich, satisfying and thought-provoking,” “smoothly directed,” a “mesmerizing production.”
But what keeps the director coming back to this play over and over again?
“It fulfills its promise,” he says without hesitation. “It entertains, it educates, it inspires. That’s what good theater should do. I’ve seen the powerful effect it has, and I want San Diego audiences to have that experience. This play makes people examine their lives and maybe even think differently. That’s my greatest hope, that theater will do that for people. That’s why I’m in the theater — to try to make the world a little better.”
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.