Wisconsin-born playwright brings “The Chosen” to Milwaukee | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Wisconsin-born playwright brings “The Chosen” to Milwaukee  

“The Chosen,” the story of a pair of Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s, began life as a novel by Chaim Potok, first published in 1967. It was adapted into a movie in 1981 and then, in 1999, Aaron Posner worked with Potok to turn it into a stage play.  

That play has been staged over a hundred times over the last 25 years, and now it’s headed to Milwaukee, where it will run from March 5-31 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. The show is presented by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.  

“The Milwaukee Rep came to us excited about this play about a year ago, long before Oct. 7, because of their commitment to productions with an educational component,” said Miryam Rosenzweig, president and CEO of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “‘The Chosen’ is a slice of American life, with baseball, family, friendship, tradition, and the meaningful presence of the Jewish people. We are reminded that while the Jewish experience is beautifully unique in America, it is also so everyday American and so very human.” 

Posner had directed another literary adaptation of Potok, “My Name is Asher Lev,” in Milwaukee about 10 years ago, as well as other shows, and was brought in to direct “The Chosen” by artistic director Mark Clements, after they had discussed doing so for a long time.  

Posner worked with Potok for a period in the late 1990s on the theatrical adaptation, and it premiered at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, which Posner co-founded. He noted that the play, over the years, has undergone “a number of rewrites and reimaginings,” including a switch from a five-actor play down to four actors.  

“When I first spoke with Chaim about the project, my pitch to him was ‘this is a story about two fathers and two sons,’” Posner said. “It’s many other things, as well, but it’s a story about the friendship between these two remarkable young men, and it’s the story of the way that friendship is affected by their complicated but powerful relationships with their fathers.” That was, he said, what Potok responded to.  

Potok died in 2002.  

The play, Posner said, “touches on many other things – it touches on Jewish identity, it touches on sort of a history of Zionism and the founding of Israel, there’s a lot of other things that are in the backdrop and the DNA. It talks about Talmud, it talks about faith, it talks about the difference between Orthodoxy and Hasidism, all these other things are in there —but at its core, it is the story of the friendship… and how one comes together across difference.”  

Posner, who in addition to writing is also the director of this production, was actually born in Madison while his father was a professor at the University of Wisconsin. However, his family moved away when he was a year old. He currently lives in the Washington, D.C., area, where he is a professor at American University, in addition to his work as a playwright.  

The playwright has brought numerous productions to Wisconsin before, but this is the first time “The Chosen” has had a professional staging in Milwaukee.  

The play was not, in fact, the first theatrical adaptation of “The Chosen.” An off-Broadway musical version was produced in 1988, but it only lasted about a week. Rob Morrow, the Jewish actor best known for “Northern Exposure” and “Quiz Show,” was part of the cast.  

“I think part of why Chaim responded so positively to my small cast, very-focused, what-has-integrity-to-the-center-of-the story, was that the musical was a little ill-fated as I understand it. I was told that it was nicknamed ‘The Closin,’ because people knew it was going to be closing soon.”  

The playwright also sees that the story’s universality has resonated over the years.  

“While the background and the backdrop is a very, very Jewish story, these are conflicts that know no boundaries of religion or culture or nation,” Posner said.  

Rosenzweig said the play offers a thoughtful conversation about Jewish identity, recognizing that Jews are not monolithic. “Even within each denomination, we have conversations, we have disagreements, and we have thought-provoking and identity-making conversations,” she said.  

The play is a product of its times, and it includes the views of Jewish characters on the appropriateness of Israel as a secular or religious enterprise. Shades of this debate continue to exist today, though Rosenzweig notes that modern American Jewry is overwhelmingly pro-Israel, according to surveys.  

“This is a touching, painful, and meaningful play that is sure to inspire dialogue, while also offering a world-class theater experience,” said Joan Lubar, who is on the board of the Milwaukee Rep and is chair of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “When we explore the richness of Milwaukee’s diversity, our entire community benefits.” 

* * *

“The Chosen”
Milwaukee Repertory Theater
March 5-31, 2024