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That the late Chaim Potok (1929-2002) rebelled against his stringent religious upbringing is not incidental to his work as a novelist. Yet he was not a mystical skeptic like that sly Yiddish fabulist Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991). His writing often examined the painful choices open to young American Jews in the secular, adopted land to which their fathers refused to assimilate. Yet he did so not with the slashing satirical fury of a Philip Roth but with a gently rabbinical approach. He saw both sides of the struggle, and it is his compassion and empathy for characters with wildly divergent systems of belief that has made his books treasurable to so many readers.
With novels such as The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name Is Asher Lev, Potok, to his credit, remains one of the most important of post-war American writers. The play the author (with Aaron Posner) made from his first novel is a thing of beauty: spare, precise, and marvelously theatrical. The Chosen dramatizes its source with astonishing candor and shattering emotional impact.
As with the novel, the play concerns the difficult friendship of two boys and the means by which each navigates the troubled waters of family, faith, and expectation. Danny (Marshall Botvinick), aloof and seemingly cold-blooded, is the eldest son of the rigidly Hasidic Reb Saunders (Bob Barr) and, as such, his chosen successor. Reuven (Max Kaufman) is his polar opposite: scion of the respected Torah scholar David Malter (Herb Wolff), devout but relaxed in his Americanism. The relationship between the pair begins in murderous antagonism before mutating into something altogether remarkable. The boys do not switch positions exactly, but each finds in the other the key to his unexpected future.
Potok and Posner wisely retain much of the novel's rich passages of observation through the omnipresent narration of the adult Reuven (Scott Franco), whose presence also cunningly allows for the appearance of minor but important characters, shoes Reuven steps into with theatrical aplomb. The action is largely confined to three spaces — a pair of diametrically opposed locations for each of the fathers and a central area belonging primarily to Reuven and Danny (and into which Reb Saunders will pointedly enter at the climax, in a sense uniting these disparate galaxies.) Yet, like the dialogue itself, the staging spills and overlaps, creating a mosaic of life in the Williamsburg of 1944-48 as rich as the evocative black-and-white collages by Rob Hamilton against which the drama is performed.
If Max Kaufman's Reuven is physically taller than his adult self, it's a slight distraction. This young actor pours himself into the confusions, fears, and hopes the character must negotiate with a sureness that belies his age. Marshall Botvinick's Danny, meanwhile, is altogether exceptional. He absolutely commands the conflicted schoolboy's persona, from the rigidity of his stance to the superior smirk he often wears. He makes Danny's desire for a world of knowledge outside his own, and the attendant guilt he feels in reaching for it, achingly palpable. He even manages to overcome a badly matched set of earlocks — no mean feat, that.
Bob Barr too triumphs over earlocks and beard that turn his head into a pigmentational triptych. When his Reb Saunders engages in an earnest Numerological explication, he pierces you with a glare at once challenging and profoundly humane. His cry upon gauging the true extent of the horror we know as the Holocaust ("The world kills us! Oh, how it kills us!") is a knife to penetrate the stoniest heart. As David Malter, the gentle yet impassioned Talmudic scholar who becomes a passionate supporter of the Zionism so despised by Reb Saunders, Herb Wolff provides a superbly calibrated counter-balance to Barr's exclusionary patriarch. His easy camaraderie with Reuven provides a wrenching contrast to the cool formality with which Reb Saunders deals with his own son.
Scott Franco proves a most amiable interlocutor, knowing yet almost surgically disengaged from the past playing out before him; he listens with an extraordinary sense of concentration, aware of the outcome the boys cannot know but never quite giving the game away. He also provides a boisterous baseball coach (much different from the one in Potok's novel) and a taunting instructor who swivels his lectern around when pontificating at Danny. In one of the play's most audacious moments of theatricality, he confronts his troubled younger self, engaging the boy in a Socratic dialogue that one suspects even Reb Saunders would admire.
It's always a pleasure to welcome a new performing company to the area, particularly when its initial production is as accomplished as its aspirations. Such is the case with Theatre Or and its maiden effort. "Or," for the uninitiated, is Hebrew for "light," and it does my soul a world of good to report that this name proves an apt one indeed. Under the muted yet vibrant and inspired direction of Joseph Megel and the dedication of his producer, Diane Gilboa, The Chosen casts revelatory illumination on some of the most profound questions of 20th (and 21st) century experience. It's a labor of love, and it shines.
Theatre Or presents The Chosen Saturday, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 8, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. at Judea Reform Congregation, 1933 W. Cornwallis Blvd., Durham, North Carolina, and Saturday, Feb. 14, at 8:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 15, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. at Beth Meyer Synagogue, 504 Newton Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $10-$20. 919/489-7062 (Durham only), 919/848-1420 (Raleigh only), or 919/990-1994 (both), or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (both). Theatre Or: http://www.theatreor.org/. Chaim Potok (1929-2002): http://www.lasierra.edu/~ballen/potok/ [inactive 7/04]. Judea Reform Congregation: http://www.judeareform.org/. Beth Meyer Synagogue: http://www.bethmeyer.raleigh.nc.us/ [inactive 9/04] .