It's hard to imagine a more relevant play than the one Live Theatre Workshop has selected for its first show of 2013. The Chosen, based on Chaim Potok's 1967 novel of the same name, and adapted for the stage by Potok and Aaron Posner, is a thoughtful story of friendship, growing up, and facing the often difficult job of reconciling the religious traditions in which one has been steeped with one's personal quest for a meaningful life.
It's also a gentle exploration of how often differences in one's beliefs from those of another person's—even within a similar religious tradition—can lead to discord and emotional pain and isolation. It doesn't take a great leap to see how this can lead to distrust and violence on a large scale, and the evidence unfortunately exists across the globe.
In LTW's solid production, Reuven (Cliff Madison), an Orthodox Jew, narrates his personal story of growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and his friendship with Danny Saunders (Emilio Zweig), a Hasidic Jew whose father is a powerful rabbi. In keeping with tradition, Danny is to become the next leader of their congregation.
The two meet while competing on opposing teams in a softball game, and inherent in their competition is an element of hostility because of their differing backgrounds. Danny smashes a line drive that hits young Reuven's (Noam Shahar) face, breaking his glasses and sending him to the hospital with a serious eye injury. Danny visits Reuven in the hospital to ask for forgiveness, and Reuven must forgive him because Jewish law dictates that he must. The two forge a friendship, and we see them grow into early manhood, discovering the paths that will give their lives meaning.
The story also critically focuses on the boys' relationship with their fathers. Reuven's father, Malter (Rick Shipman) an open-minded religious and secular scholar, offers his son warm wisdom and encouragement to study all disciplines. Danny, an extremely bright and inquisitive young man, however, must remain unexposed to the secular world, although he secretly visits the library to read Hemingway and Freud. His father, Reb Saunders (Bill Epstein), an imperious and distant man, only communicates with his son in sessions where they discuss the Talmud and Torah, choosing to raise his son in silence, which Danny experiences as hurtful, although he tries to trust his father's choice.
The story takes place over four years, 1944 to 1948, when the world was changing dramatically, especially for American Jews when the extermination of more than 6 million of their brothers and sisters was confirmed. The Hasidim, such as Reb Saunders, were adamant that it must have been God's will. Reuven's father and others like him declared that nevermore would Jews stand for such persecution, and threw themselves behind the support of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. As a result, Reb Saunders no longer welcomes Reuven in his home, and forbids Danny to see his friend, proclaiming that Zionism was secular, socialist and sacrilegious.
As one might expect of a novel-turned-play, the adaptation is dense with language and not explosive with drama. The presence of the narrator tells us that this is a play of small scenes, jumping around in time, and the adult Reuven, as narrator, will help us connect the dots. His observations from the perspective of time offer an editorial wisdom that might not be readily obvious from the scenes themselves. In other words, we are told as much as we see, and although that can sometimes be a dramatist's cheap trick, it works here.
Part of the reason it works is the winning performance of the older Reuven by Madison, a frequent LTW performer. He is warm and welcoming as he invites us into his story, and he is gentle and nonjudgmental as he recalls the pain that unyielding beliefs caused for himself and his friendship with Danny. Madison's characterization is a chief reason the story works its way into our hearts.
Director Annette Hillman has assembled a cast that capably comes together for effective storytelling. Young Shahar and Zweig give very respectable performances, although their youth and inexperience mean that they don't have the life lessons that could deepen their portrayals. But they certainly don't inhibit the story's effectiveness, and they both are to be commended for some impressive work.
Shipman, as Reuven's father, also gives a solid performance. His character must model a deep faith, open-mindedness and a respect for his son and Danny as well, and Shipman does this convincingly.
As Reb Saunders, Epstein is not quite as successful. His portrayal of the rabbi is extreme, making the character so serious about his duties that he often seems distant and unapproachable, and worse, lacking compassion. Certainly the character takes his responsibilities seriously, but even when the story calls for a heartfelt confession and display of emotion, Epstein is not quite credible. Although his characterization is a bit misguided, he still performs well enough to contribute to the effectiveness of the production.
Hillman shows skill in her approach to the story, clearly understanding its import and believing in it as a cautionary tale. She guides her cast to create a well-paced and engaging piece.
Richard and Amanda Gremel's set is workable, but one aspect is a bit problematic, although it represents a good idea. There is a small screen upstage in a far corner onto which are projected various images. Unfortunately, its size and placement render it not as effective as the idea behind its presence intended.
The Chosen is a solid production, delivering a substantive story that the world is always in need of being reminded. No one group has the monopoly on the paths to spiritual truths. As Rabbi Reuven says at the end of the play, "Both these and those are the words of the living God."