The Soundness of Silence
Adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok
Theater J, Fichandler at Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011, North D–20&22
Directed by Aaron Posner
Chaim Potok's novel, published in 1967, was made into a movie in 1981. Theater J did a stage version 10 years ago, and now Aaron Posner is mounting a new adaptation for Theater J at Arena Stage. This latest version did its antecedents proud.
Most of the credit goes to the fine ensemble of actors. Derek Kahn Thompson as Young Reuven was constantly engaged and always engaging as the story's centerpiece character coming of age through his interactions with two diametrically opposed, but mutually respectful, Jewish fathers: his own father, the modern orthodox Jew and Zionist David Malter, robustly played by Edward Gero, and his best friend's Hasidic Tzaddik father, Reb Saunders, passionately played by Rick Foucheux.
Joshua Morgan was Danny, Reuven's best friend destined to inherit his father's position as Tzaddik. Danny was truly an alien in the Brooklyn of 1944, uncertain in his social encounters not only because of his community's isolation but also due to his father's raising him in silence and his own incredible mental capacities. Stiff in motion and emotionally stifled, Morgan's Danny was simultaneously funny and sad to watch, his widened eyes seeking answers to his relentless questions prompted by his reading or by his yearning for his father's love.
A grown-up Reuven played by Aaron Davidman, who also filled in the minor roles of baseball coach, psychology professor, and a non-practicing Jew, narrated the play. It was a device that sometimes intruded, especially as Davidman physically moved among the other four characters in many scenes. The device at least helped move the plot along and explain the play's overriding theme: how two seemingly separate religious philosophies can both be the real word of God and form a single truth. This theme played out in the unlikely friendship of Reuven and Danny, Reuven's being embraced by Reb Saunders despite his being from what the Tzaddik considered a heretic family, and in the life paths the two boys ultimately take: Reuven, a math whiz who set out to be a professor instead decides to become a rabbi, while Danny, the chosen one with a photographic memory and immense curiosity, heads toward a career in psychology.
Though the overriding theme concerns seemingly divergent truths finding single courses (certainly a relevant theme in today's political environment), Posner's adaptation dwelt more on the drama of Danny's being raised in silence. We learned in the end that the father chose this course to force Danny to feel true pain, since his voracious learning as a boy was wholly cerebral. Along the way, the script provided such homilies as silence being the way to achieve true wisdom, and that more can be gleaned of a man's character through silence than through words. Reuven's father was a man of words, both as a writer and a campaigner for an Israeli state, but the most important lesson he instilled in his own son was the importance of concentrated listening in silence.
James Kronzer's set divided the box theater's stage into four quadrants, with the two fathers' offices in opposite corners. The action glided from quadrant to quadrant depending on the setting, and window frames lowered from above for interior scenes (sometimes obstructing our view). The set looked great, but dialogue in the opposite corner from us (the Saunders' household) was often hard to understand. This might be a fault of the new theater, a theater in the square rather than the round. Being on aisle seats, we were facing the seats adjacent to us rather than the stage, forcing us to sit sideways (the Camden Yard crick-necked seating standard) to see and hear the play.
March 11, 2011