About the author:
Aaron Posner has built a thriving career as a theater administrator and director of award-winning productions in the Washington DC area, with an emphasis on Shakespeare. But this busy stage pro has also found time to adapt two beloved works of fiction by Chaim Potok, The Chosen (co-written with Potok) and the coming-of-age drama My Name is Asher Lev. Now, Asher Lev has arrived at off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre, where the play and its young title star, Ari Brand, are wowing audiences. As Posner preps for a November 28 opening night, Broadway.com asked him to write about finding the drama in Asher Lev while remaining true to a great piece of literature.
When someone tells you a book changed his life, you should probably pay attention.
While I was working with Chaim Potok on adapting his novel The Chosen for the stage, I started hearing amazing stories about his later novel, My Name is Asher Lev. People told me that the validation and inspiration they received from this book had profoundly affected their lives. Some felt that it had literally saved their life.
So I read it. And I found it to be extraordinary.
My Name is Asher Lev is about growing up in a world (and a family) you love, but from which you feel deeply set apart. The specific causes vary widely, but this is a core reality to which many, many people can relate. Whether the differences are religious, moral, political, sexual, artistic, social or anything else, untold millions grow up in circumstances from which they feel essentially at odds.
In this story, it's a boy with a remarkable gift for visual art, born into a deeply religious Hassidic Jewish family. He finds that he cannot and/or will not reject either one, so he is faced with the nearly impossible task of reconciling them. His attempt to live fully in both worlds—while being true to himself—is the story. It's a story that cuts across all religious and ethnic lines. It's a conflict that can go right to the core of people.
I found the book powerful and deeply moving. I felt it deserved to be on stage, and that it could truly engage a wide audience and touch lives in meaningful ways. The puzzle was: How do you bring a largely interior, culturally specific first-person novel effectively to the stage? Painting is fascinating, certainly, but not as dramatic as, say, a baseball game. And the world of Hassidic Judaism is not a very accessible one.
I knew I wanted the focus to be on Asher. His passionate perspective had to be at the center. Yet there are powerful people who affect his life, and I knew that they had to be well represented as well. At the same time, I felt sure that a sprawling, multi-character realistic drama would not successfully portray Asher's particular struggle.
In the end—after literally years of thought and exploration—my many influences included the spare theatricality of play readings, the deeply personal dynamic of one-person shows, narrative radio shows like This American Life, and, of course, the amazing and deeply felt book itself. What emerged, I hope, is a sparse, focused play that attempts to show Asher's story in the most direct, clear, effective manner possible.
I'd worked closely with Chaim on adapting The Chosen, but, sadly, he had passed away before I figured out how to approach Asher Lev. In his widow, Adena, however, I found an excited and willing supporter who helped flesh out his very specific world and give us access to Chaim's perspectives and influences. The world portrayed is specific, but, as is often the case, in the particulars lays the path to the universal.
Chaim often talked passionately about "serious literature." He uttered those words with a wonderful gravity and sense of import. He felt literature could be... worthwhile. He felt—as I do— that art can make a real difference in the world, and that great stories, well told, can actually create greater understanding and connection. That hope and intention has always been before us as we attempted to bring his work to the stage.
Chaim was a master storyteller of deep conviction and enormous breadth and depth. Nothing I've done in the professional theater is more truly worthwhile, I feel, than bringing Chaim's remarkable vision and worlds to the stage for a whole new audience.