BWW Reviews: THE CHOSEN knocks one out of the park in Rancho Mirage.
The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre (CVRep for short), a non-profit regional professional theater in Rancho Mirage, California, has mounted a brilliant and moving production of THE CHOSEN, which Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok adapted for the stage from Chaim Potok's novel of the same name. The show is the first of four in CVRep's "American Melting Pot" series, each of which focuses on the forces tugging on ethnic Americans as they struggle with their dual identities.
The story, told in flashback, focuses on an unlikely friendship between two Brooklyn high school students, Reuven Malter (played by Drew Feldman) and Danny Saunders (played by Daniel Seigerman), during the latter part of World War II and its aftermath. The boys are both Orthodox Jews who attend Torah academies, and they are both top-notch baseball players, but the similarities in their backgrounds end there. Reuven and his father (Dennis Gersten) are modern Orthodox, observant of halakha (Jewish law), but comfortable in secular society. Danny, a Chasid (a particular sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews), is the son of Reb Saunders (David Light), a Russian refugee who led the few remaining members of his shtetl to safety in the United States, and who is acclaimed by all who know him as a "great man." The boys meet as members of opposing teams in a baseball game, take an instant, visceral dislike to each other, and develop a friendship only after Danny's batted ball injures Reuven and Danny visits Reuven to apologize.
Narrated by the adult Reuven (Dave Natale), the story emphasizes the contrast between Reuven's warm rapport with his Talmud instructor father and Danny's almost nonexistent relationship with Reb Saunders, who believes that the Talmud requires him to eschew conversation with his son except about Torah. The play centers on the boys' attempts to maneuver through their personal lives amid the gut-wrenching revelations coming from Europe and their fathers' passions about Zionism, focused in opposite directions - Mr. Malter believes that the remaining Jews in the world must protect future Jews by founding and supporting the state of Israel as a refuge, while Reb Saunders believes that prayer and righteousness are the only path to Jewish survival.
From the moment the audience members walk into the haimish (homey) theater, they are drawn into the story. The theater has no curtain, and Jimmy Cuomo's detailed set of the two Brooklyn streets on which the protagonists live is open to the audience's view before the show. I found myself studying the set's details, trying to figure out which of the two homes belonged to which family. (I guessed correctly). Both, of course, have mezzuzahs on the doorposts, and each has a telephone, a radio, a desk and chair, and crammed bookshelves. However, the interiors differ according to the family's outlook on life: the Modern Orthodox home has colorful books and furniture with straight lines, while the Hasidic home looks like it comes from an earlier century, with ornate furniture and books with drab covers. The different "interior decorating" in the two brownstones gives the audience the chance to experience the contrast between the Malter and Saunders families before the show begins.
THE CHOSEN is not a story for the faint-hearted. The playwrights tug at the heartstrings over and over, with Danny's revelations both about his father's coldness and the tragedies he experienced in Europe, Reuven's worries about his father's health, both families' shocked disbelief as estimates of the scope of the Nazi genocide soar, and the constant reminders that these young men, despite their deep friendship, live in worlds alien to each other. By the time the play reaches its climax, the audience is wrung out.
THE CHOSEN, because of its subject matter and numerous poignant scenes, could easily descend into schmaltz if performed or directed by less skilled individuals. The talented cast members and the show's director (Ron Celona, CVRep's artistic chief) all resist the temptation to turn the characters into ethnic caricatures or players in a melodrama. The director and actors perfectly capture the facial expressions and speech of men, young and old, coping with the trauma in their individual lives at the same time that they struggle to absorb the loss of the entire European Jewish civilization.
While all the actors are superb, one deserves a special "yasher koach" (praise for a job well done): David Light as Reb Saunders. Mr. Light seems to metamorphose into the persona of the charismatic leader who led the tattered remnant of his once proud community to safety in America after himself suffering unspeakable loss. When Reb Saunders walks into his shul (synagogue) and greets his congregation, Mr. Light's bearing and facial expressions almost caused me to forget that he is not a real rebbe. When Reb Saunders delivers an eloquent sermon using gematria, an ancient method of connecting the numerical value of letters from seemingly unconnected words to arrive at insights into Torah, the audience seemed mesmerized.
Aalsa Lee's costumes perfectly evoke both Hasidic traditions and American culture in the 1940's; Reuven's saddle shoes and Danny's long, black coat and payess (side curls) visually demonstrate the cultural differences between the two boys. Eddie Cancel's lighting and Randy Hansen's sound design also contribute strongly to the atmosphere. The lighting during Reuven's hospital nightmare is especially effective, as is the sound design when Mr. Malter reads Reuven the speech he plans to deliver at Madison Square Garden urging his listeners to support the Jewish state, and the sound switches from the Malter home to the arena's public address system.
This production of THE CHOSEN is a must-see. Individuals unfamiliar with Orthodox customs or with the Talmud should not be scared away - middle-aged Reuven explains them during his narration. As director Ron Celona told Broadway World, this play has universal appeal. He noted that "people like history," and the story is a history lesson regarding how American Jews responded to the Nazi genocide and the birth of the state of Israel. Mr. Celona explained that THE CHOSEN is also "a family story - it's a story of fathers and sons," and how the fathers balance fatherhood with religion.
THE CHOSEN is playing at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre from Wednesdays through Sundays, through November 16, 2014. CVRep is located in The Atrium, at 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45 each, and are available by calling the box office at 760-296-2966, or by clicking on the link at http://cvrep.org/individual-tickets-now-on-sale/ . Box office hours are Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. till 2:30 p.m., and two hours prior to each performance. Several performances are sold out.
The rest of the crew consists of Louise Ross (stage manager), Karen Goodwin (sound technician), Doug Morris (technical coordinator), Vivian Haas (costume assistant), John J. Banks (hair stylist), and Cantor Samuel Radwine (dramaturg).