A lesson from literature is given new life on the stage

Playwright Aaron Posner once again mines the work of famed Jewish author Chaim Potok

by Graydon Royce

Playwright Aaron Posner was at a point in his life when he felt he should adapt something from Jewish literature for his Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. Posner determined that the best source of advice for such an endeavor was Chaim Potok, the renowned author and frequent visitor to the Arden.

“Before doing that, I thought I should reread some of his books,” Posner said recently. “So I read ‘The Chosen’ and I realized I didn’t have to look any further than this.”

Potok gave Posner permission to adapt the 1967 story of the rivalry and friendship between two Jewish boys in postwar Brooklyn. It worked out so well that Posner went back to the author’s work to adapt “My Name Is Asher Lev.” The play will have its regional premiere this weekend at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul.

Posner has moved on from the Arden Theatre to a freelance career as director and writer.

He recently directed Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room: Or, the Vibrator Play” at Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C. When he talked on the phone recently, he was about to start a workshop on adapting literature for the stage — often a tricky proposition. “Asher Lev,” written in 1972, is perhaps closest to Potok’s emotional biography. It’s the story of a young man who wrestles between two powerful forces: his clear gift for art, and his love for family and community. That core conflict defines much of Potok’s literature. An intensely serious man, he put his protagonists in agonizing situations and let them discover their truths through reflection and experience.

“This idea that comes from the Talmud, ‘eilu v’eilu divray elohim chaim’ — meaning that ‘both these and these are the words of God,’ that two contradictory things can be true at the same time — that came out of conversations we were having while we were working on ‘The Chosen’ in the late ’90s, that you needed that idea to live in this incredibly difficult world,” Posner said. “That had a profound effect on me.”

Finding himself in the story

Like his young hero, Asher Lev, Potok grew up in a close-knit Jewish community. His family was Orthodox and frowned on Chaim’s penchant for literature — particularly his interest in non-Jewish authors — so his decision to become a writer caused him great angst. “The Chosen” established Potok’s reputation, which he built upon with “The Promise” and two books about Asher Lev. He depicted Orthodox Jewish life with great detail and warmth. That specificity made him something of a rare taste, yet the core humanity and authenticity in his writing appealed universally.

“His characters are people trying their best and operating from love and good intention — and still are deep in passionate conflict with each other,” Posner said. “These are the great conflicts of our lives, between our family and the things we need. We recognize that across all boundaries.”

Miriam Monasch will direct the MJTC production with a cast of three. Newcomer Logan Verdoorn plays the title character, and David Coral and Elena Giannetti portray his parents and a host of other characters. Posner said he decided to use only three actors for two reasons: to keep the focus on Asher and to allow the others a chance to do a little acting.

“At one point, I didn’t know if theatrically it was possible,” Posner said, “but it makes possible really virtuosic performances.”

Potok died in 2002, but Posner said he still carries nuggets of wisdom gleaned from their conversations. If it seems that Potok was a serious, almost somber, writer, it is because he was. Potok encouraged Posner to emulate that stance, insofar as producing art that is worthwhile — a word that the novelist used a lot.

“In his novels he talks about doing things that are ‘worthwhile,’ ” Posner said. “In ‘Asher Lev,’ one of the characters tells Asher, ‘That’s how you do things that are worthwhile, worth your while, my while, anybody’s while.’ And that came from Chaim.”

From The Star Tribune

The original article may be found here.

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