Five actors walk into an almost entirely bare set, two in traditional Hasidic garb of black suits, white shirts, and fur hats, three in more ordinary grays and browns. The actors freeze in a tableau of 1940s New York street life. Several seconds pass. One actor, center stage, addresses the audience: "Silence. For a word to be spoken, there must be silence."
Such is the opening of The Chosen, a play by Chaim Potok and Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Potok, as produced by A Traveling Jewish Theater. Director Aaron Davidman's interpretation of the play uses sparse visuals, carefully choreographed gestural phrases, and deliberate punctuations of silence and sound to create an intensely rich sepia-toned tapestry of the lives of two young Jewish boys and their fathers against the backdrop of World War II.
Into the broken silence, the narrator begins to describe his boyhood while a projected image of a schoolyard appears on the back wall. The actors spring into a baseball game between the Hasids and the Apikorsim - the more assimilated Orthodox Jews who eschew most of the outward signs and symbols and actively pursue secular studies such as anthropology and American literature in addition to the Talmud. Young Reuven (Zac Jaffee) and Danny Saunders (Gabriel Carter) face off as pitcher and batter, with Danny, son of the Hasidic community's head rabbi, smacking the ball square in Young Reuven's face and landing him in the hospital, an event that sparks an unlikely friendship.
The original novel, published in 1967, is a classic of young adult literature, but in seeing the play, written over thirty years later, one experiences a streamlined version of the original, distilled to the essential elements, a result of the matured writer's opportunity to hone what was his first published book.
Potok and ATJT director Davidman obviously take delight in the mechanisms offered by the theatrical format. The narrator (skillfully rendered by Tom Darci) is Reuven as an adult, providing background and reflection when needed, but also being a character who interacts with the events, sometimes as a ghost reaching out to almost touch his father during one scene, and sometimes as a device, grasping the arm of his younger self and gently lowering him to the ground in the accident scene, and ultimately as participant, conversing directly with himself in a climactic moment not possible in the novel.
The use of silences also is a theatrical convention, and here the pauses draw out an additional layer from a plot point in the original story: Danny's father's deliberate choice to raise his son in silence, only conversing with him during Talmud study. By staging an experience of silence and sound in the play, Davidman creates a visceral echo, so that when Danny's rage at his father turns to understanding - "I can hear silence," he says, "It actually speaks to me" - the audience hears it too.
Not that the actors are so quiet. Each voice is like an instrument in a musical score: There is the foreboding bass cough of Reuven's father (Anthony Fusco), Danny's drumlike deliberations, the saxophonic punch of Young Reuven's questioning, Rev Saunders' (David Kudler) tuba-like pronouncements, all topped by the tumbling swing-jazz scat of narrator Darci's reflections. Kudler's rendition of Saunders' speech to his congregation is so evocative that, on the night I attended, several audience mem-bers actually murmured "Amen" at its close.
The dualities, between the boys themselves, between the two fathers, between each boy and his own father, and between being Jewish and American, create compelling tensions that carry the play, and some audiences today may find the resolution a little too easy for all the struggle that precedes it, but it is absolutely true to Potok's book. That may say something about the desire for happy endings in the 1960s, or may reveal more about our own modern-day attachment to cynicism.