Monday, March 17, 2003

The Chosen (Jewish Community Center)

‘THE CHOSEN’ well-done and thought provoking

When on July 23, 2002 Chaim Potok died, the English speaking world lost one of the few voices who has been able to paint a picture of Hasidic life in America. Hasidics are ultra-Orthodox Jews whose belief in a divine God who must be listened to and adored have been unwavering in their convictions for many generations. They still adhere to the dress codes of ancient times and spend their days and nights in religious study. It is this world that Potok illuminates. He does it from authority. As he once said, “I grew up. . .in a Hasidic world.” His world, however, was not the religious extreme. He, therefore, is capable of looking at the movement through clear eyes.

Potok started writing fiction at the age of 16. With the publication of his novel ‘THE CHOSEN’ in 1967, Potok entered the American literary scene and he grew in stature with eight subsequent publications.

The play version of “THE CHOSEN’ is now being staged at the Halle Theatre of the Jewish Community Center. With dramatic force, it tells of the powerful bonds of love and pain that join fathers and sons and how that love differs, yet is the same in divergent settings.

It’s the 1940's in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Two boys who have grown up within a few blocks of each other, but in two entirely different worlds, meet for the first time in a bizarre and explosive encounter--a baseball game between two Jewish parochial schools that turns into a holy war. The assailant is Danny Saunders- moody and brilliant. He is driven by his pent-up torment. He feels imprisoned by the tradition that destines him to succeed his awesome father in an unbroken line of great Hasidic rabbis. The victim of Danny's rage is Reuven Malther, the gentle son of a gentle scholar. He is one of the less-Orthodox Jews whom the Hasids regard as little better than infidels. Their lives become entwined and we are carried into an investigation of what it really means to love a son and finally fulfill the obligation of letting him go into the world he wants and needs.

Director Dorothy Silver has crafted an engrossing evening of theatre. She has molded a cast, most of whom had no understanding of the religious implications and philosophical concepts of Hasidism, into a body that allows audience member, Jews and non-Jews alike, to understand the universal themes of the script.

Sean Szaller is outstanding as the Young Reuven Malter. He totally grasps the slightest nuances of the character. Doug Rossi, develops a believable Danny, but one must wonder why an American-born young man would be speaking with an accent. An accent which is not well sustained. Larry Nehring, as the adult Reuven, acts as the show’s narrator with ease. He seamlessly weaves in and out of scenes and is the audience’s eyes and ears. One of Cleveland’s acting treasurers, Reuben Silver, is texture-perfect as Reb Saunders. The character alternately frustrates in his rigidness and surprises with his insights. This is a fine, fine performance. Michael Regnier, as Reuven’s father illustrates the rational, caring man who understands his limitations yet is driven by his intellectual passions.

Larry Gorjup has designed an impressive evening of sound. Consisting of 1940s radio broadcasts and the appropriate music, the audio transports the audience into the proper mood and illuminates the era perfectly. The postage stamp-sized stage is always a challenge to scenic designers. Tony Kovacic has done a wonderful job of using the limited space. Alison Hernan’s costumes are period and religiously correct.