Friends through thick and thin

“These and those are the words of the living God.” These words are spoken in the opening monologue of Portland Center Stage’s production of Aaron Posner’s The Chosen, directed by Chris Coleman.

“These and those are the words of the living God.” These words are spoken in the opening monologue of Portland Center Stage’s production of Aaron Posner’s The Chosen, directed by Chris Coleman. These opening words come to define the rest of the production, as two boys from different worlds become the best of friends.

The show is set during the ending years of World War II, in a Jewish community, and is narrated by Reuven Malter (Matthew Boston). Young Reuven (Carter Hudson) and Danny Saunders (Jonathan David Martin) meet on the baseball field, and become friends after Danny’s base-hit becomes acquainted with Reuven’s eye, landing him in the hospital.

This may not sound too unusual, but Danny is the son of a Hasidic leader (an ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism), while Reuven is an Orthodox Jew and the son of a controversial scholar of the Torah. On top of this, Danny openly admits in his first visit to Reuven’s hospital room that he intended to kill him.

Somehow, a very close friendship is founded between the boys despite the confession, growing through mutual respect and opposing interests in secular studies. Reuven’s father, David Malter (John Rothman), encourages Danny’s studies, recommending Freud and Nabokov, while Danny’s father Reb Saunders (David Margulies) invites Reuven over to debate Torah on Shabbat. Their relationships with their fathers and with one another’s fathers are contrasted many times throughout the show, each time showing a greater juxtaposition but no less love.

The news of the war’s end, preceded by the horrible blow of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, is followed quickly by news of the Holocaust, which weighs heavily on the boys’ fathers. In 1947, the U.N. proposed the idea of a Jewish nation in Palestine, causing a bloody and bitter civil war, and an equally bitter separation of the American Jews—Zionists versus non-Zionists—or, in terms of the play, David Malter versus Reb Saunders, leading to a year of silence between Danny and Reuven.

Reb’s first appearance is during the liturgy at the Hasidic temple, and it is during this monologue that the viewer first realizes what a wonder Margulies is to watch. He is every inch a distinguished religious leader, and even more so an awkwardly caring parent. The connection between Margulies and Martin is a beautiful disconnect, and it is totally believable to watch them read and sit together in complete silence. It is incredibly moving to watch as Reb talks to Danny through Reuven about his decision not to follow his father into the service of their community—the audience can feel Reb Saunders’ love for his son, and can read Danny’s emotions on his face.

Michael Olich, the set designer, created an efficient and easily accessible world for the show. There was no unnecessary clutter on the stage to distract from the story, and the rotating floor made for perfect choreography, as there was not a single superfluous move of the actors or (one would assume) the stagehands all night.

By far the best idea was the wall that was set behind the action. It looked to be made out of stone, sectioned into large rectangles, and was decorated with Hebrew words.

During especially spiritual or important scenes, certain words shone like stars, and it gave the impression that some higher being approved of what was said. They lit up when Reb spoke and during David’s impassioned Zionist speech, again reminding the audience of the beginning verse. It also serves as a metaphor for the boys’ religion: Heavy, ever-present but breathtakingly beautiful at times.

There’s a reason that this production has won awards during its ten years on the stage, and the presentation of Chris Coleman’s interpretation of the script is a gift to the audience. Any theater fan would appreciate this show for its passion, and regardless of the dogmatic substance, The Chosen does not come across as preachy.