A Choice Production
By Geary Danihy
Some plays are like tsunamis -- the power (and tension) builds and builds until there is a final assault on the emotions and, often, the stage is littered with bodies (think Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet). Then there are the plays that end up being nothing more than stagnant ponds. The Chosen, which recently opened at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, is neither tsunami nor algae-laden pond, it is a slow lapping of waves that ultimately mesmerizes and satisfies. As deftly directed by Dawn Loveland, this dramatization of Chain Potok’s 1967 novel, with its superb ensemble cast, is theater that, like an oft-told family story, evokes, upon reflection, ruminations on the choices we all make as we wend our way through life.
The very nature of choice demands that something is gained and something is lost. If not, then it is not a choice. The process is often painful, as it is for Danny Sanders (Joshua Whitson) and Reuven Malter (Jordan Wolfe), two young men living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during and immediately after World War II. They are the sons, respectively, of Reb Saunders (Damian Buzze) and Reuven Malter (David Gautschy), two Jewish men, the former a Hasidic rabbi, the latter a scholar of a modern orthodox bent, who have different approaches to parenting.
The play is framed by a narrator, a mature Reuven (David Gautschy) who provides the initial exposition and comments on the tensions that arise between these two families, tensions that deal with how an older generation communicates with the younger and, on a larger scale, what it means to be Jewish, a question fraught with agonizing imponderables given the Holocaust, the rise of Zionism and the attendant drive to create the State of Israel.
The two boys meet on a baseball field (an American melting pot metaphor) and there is an immediate antipathy. This antipathy morphs into a growing friendship that is challenged by their antithetical upbringings, for Reuven’s father is outgoing and delights in talking with his son, while Danny’s father has chosen silence as a means of teaching his son certain lessons about life (including silence as the only response that one can give to the horrific if one is still to believe in an all-loving God).
Reuven is to become a professor of mathematics; Danny is to become a rabbi and eventually the leader of the Hasidic sect that his father shepherded from the European maelstrom to the safer shores of America. Thus, the play deals with choices, choices fathers have made for their sons, and the choices that the sons make as they realize what consumes the heart cannot be denied.
Playhouse on Park is an intimate, thrust-stage theater that presents staging challenges, challenges that have been ably met by Loveland, scenic designer Christopher Hoyt, lighting designer Aaron Hochheiser and sound designer Joel Abbot (who deftly moves a scene from a home to Madison Square Garden through use of reverberation).
Loveland has her cast in constant movement, utilizing all available space from stage left to stage right. The blocking is often balletic, for the actors’ movements accentuate and reinforce the dialogue and the emotions being expressed. As the actors move, Hochheirser’s lighting design, never intrusive, subtly directs the audience’s attention and creates appropriate moods. This is all done against Hoyt’s minimalist set, which consists of an upstage wooden framework with an inscribed arch and several platforms, two of which, stage right and left, support desks that define the two familial worlds in which Reuven and Danny exist.
Novels and plays unfold in different ways, and this adaptation by the author and Aaron Posner has some inherent developmental problems, for there is a need to provide a great deal of exposition. Thus, the play is somewhat slow to get out of the gate, but once it does it inexorably draws in the audience, and this drawing in is much to the credit of the cast, for each actor seems born to play the role he has been given. You believe that Buzzerio is a man haunted by the Holocaust, a devout man who comes to question the nature of a God who would allow depravities to occur, yet clings to his beliefs and has chosen to communicate with his son through silence. You believe that Shor is a man driven by the passion to never allow what has occurred to happen again, and who has chosen to communicate with his son through Socratic dialogue. You believe that Wolfe, as Reuven, and Whitson, as Danny, are two young men seeking to understand who they are and what they wish to become, and that their friendship might help them achieve that goal, and you believe that Gautschy is an older Reuven (amongst other characters that he ably portrays) who sees events in a different perspective, one that puts actions taken and motives (and needs -- and failures) in perspective.
There is something deeply, quietly, satisfying about this production, perhaps because you get the sense, as the evening unfolds, that the actors and the production team all found a way to get on the same page, to agree about the “gestalt” of the play. At moments, you might find yourself leaning forward, a physical manifestation of the draw of the play. The story, ultimately, compels such movement, as does the acting.
The Chosen runs through Feb. 14. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org