February 2009

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My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Asher Lev
From novel to stage play.

-- Adena Potok

When playwright-director Aaron Posner asked me to join as artistic consultant to him on the adaptation to the stage of the novel My Name Is Asher Lev, I greeted the invitation eagerly --- and with not a little trepidation. The co-adaptor with Aaron on the adaptation of The Chosen from 1998 to 1999 was the book’s author, Chaim Potok. While the two had talked of adapting Asher Lev to the stage, with Chaim’s death in 2002 that was no longer an option. Shortly afterward Aaron discussed with me his interest in picking up on this project. We both agreed to table further plans for the time being. In the Spring of 2007. we picked up the interest, and that summer moved it forward with a workshop at Play Penn followed by a staged reading at The Arden in the Fall. Aaron did further rewrites, I read, his dramaturg read. We picked up on these beginnings and set to work.in the summer of 2008.

True, as the author’s wife, I had been Chaim Potok’s “first reader” and editor throughout his writing career. But that was not the same as owning his sensibility. Both Posner and I were exquisitely aware of the differences, and both of us were ready to take the plunge. We respected each other’s competencies, and trusted the loyalty we brought to the written work. Of course, Aaron brought a track-record of a successful prior adaptation and play direction. But, he knew of my literary sensibility and of my close collaboration with Chaim in his works of fiction. He was looking for a literary sensibility combined with historical and cultural sophistication to be integrated into the fabric of the work, both written and then crafted into the mounting of the play. Eventually this would translate into coaching of nuance and accent, in speech and costume. What I brought to the table was insight that Posner apparently trusted --- sufficiently to embark with me as artistic consultant to the play. And so we began.

(l-r): Karl Miller as Asher and Adam Heller as Man in Arden Theatre Company's production of My Name Is Asher Lev. Photo by Mark Garvin.

After many re-readings of the novel and several face-to-face meetings thanks to the internet, we were able to “talk” with each other through various drafts.

In the late Fall of 2008, we met with the cast and crews whom Aaron had brought on board, and prepared to craft the written play. (The term playwright connotes crafting, or working with a script to bring it to life on the stage.) Crucial to this creative process were several other craftsmen: the dramaturg, Michele Volansky, assistant director – Adrienne Mackey, music and lighting directors –-- James Sugg and Thom Weaver, scenic designer --– Dan Conway, costume --- Alison Roberts. Pulling it all together were the stage manager – Alec Ferrell assisted by an ever-ready and sophisticated apprentice --– Katherine Fritz --- from the Arden Theatre. At one point, I suggested her wearing a pedometer, to clock her mileage.

Those gifts brought to the project were evident from the start, as was the dedication. The cast deserves a book all to themselves. Karl Miller (Asher), Adam Heller (Arye Lev, Jacob Kahn, Rebbe, Uncle Yitzhok) Gabra Zackman (Rivka Lev, Anna Schaeffer, model). It was they who were going to bring to life the characters and the story originally put into the world of literature by Chaim Potok. It was they who were going to bring onto the stage the adapted play. It was the crews who were going to light and design the stage and create the musical pulse on which the play would present to audiences. And it was the director who was going to mold all of that into a dynamic unity of dramatic presence. -- with exquisite attention to the arc of the play and every aspect of its coming to life.

As they creatively adapted and moved within and against the material, the play rose from the pages and took life form. It was reminiscent --- to me, at least --- of the bones called forth from the Valley that the prophet Ezekiel addressed millennia ago. Here, too, they took on flesh and blood.

Chaim Potok

This was the best of learning experiences. The atmosphere was open, casual and serious, respectful and daring, intimate and reserved. Personal anecdotes floated with texts and anecdotes from Jewish history and thought, refracted by nuances of difference among various Jewish communities. We looked at and listened to costumes and song, variations in music and dress and belief, commonalities of loyalty, variations of accent, and history, history, history. The cast, crew, director and dramaturg listened, read, asked, and incorporated the qualities that allowed for deeply felt and incredibly understood conflicts of loyalties.

The playwright/director and the cast, aided by the crew, brought to vivid life the worlds that Chaim Potok had originally created in the pages of the novel My Name Is Asher Lev. Their presentation of loyalties to deeply held honorable values --- good values --- in essential conflict emerged with passion and pain and an almost impossible respect.

I daresay the author would be warmed, and delighted.

Asher Lev is playing at the Arden Theater Company through March 15, 2009. Visit the Arden Theater website for tickets or more information.

Adena Potok is the Israel editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. She was the wife of Chaim Potok, and was Artistic Consultant to Aaron Posner on his adaptation of Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev.

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