A Jewish Adaptor, a New Adaptation

by Pat Launer January 1, 2014
 

 

By Pat Launer

Literature shaped his life – as a Jew and as a playwright.

Aaron Posner grew up in Eugene, Ore., where there wasn’t a large Jewish community. He had his bar mitzvah at the only local temple, but as a third generation American (his great-grandparents were from Russia/Ukraine) in a not-so-Jewish environment, his upbringing was “culturally Jewish” but fairly secular.

Then he saw the film of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I was only about 7,” Posner, who currently lives in Maryland, says. “But that was my first really strong and formative experience of identifying in a meaningful way as Jewish.”

He saw the movie several more times and then, a few years later, he made a brief appearance in the stage show, though he says he “doesn’t really” sing.

His “strongest Jewish connections,” Posner says, “have always come through literature. From the stories of Chelm to the works of Chaim Potok, from Bernard Malamud to Philip Roth, to all of Isaac Bashevis Singer. My life as a Jew is in literature.”

And his dramatic adaptations are, too. But more on that later.

It was Jewishness that brought Posner’s parents together. They were 16, and both were active in BBYO, the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, the largest and oldest Jewish youth organization in the world (90 years and counting).

His father, who hailed from Seattle, was President of the West Coast Boys (part of Aleph Zadik Aleph), and his mother, a Canadian who grew up in Vancouver, was national president of the West Coast Girls.

“They were set up on a date at a convention, and they’ve been married for more than 50 years.”

Posner, now in his 40s, got a later (but more theatrical) matrimonial start. Five years ago, he married actress Erin Weaver, whom he met during a production of “Into the Woods” at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, which he co-founded and served as artistic director. They have a precocious, “amazing” 2 year-old named Maisie.

 

The Literature Connection

Posner came from “a big family of readers.” His father was a professor at the University of Oregon. His mother was an independent producer of videos and documentaries, and at one time, host of “Good Morning, Oregon.”

“I was exposed to a huge range of literature,” Posner says. “It was reading and storytelling that got me into theater.”

From about age 8, he was taken to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Shakespeare remains a favorite; he’s directed many of the plays.

All of his writing has been literary adaptations: from Mark Twain (a musical version of “A Murder, A Mystery and a Marriage”), to Ken Kesey “(Sometimes a Great Notion”), to David Foster Wallace (“Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”), to Anton Chekhov (“Stupid F***king Bird,” adapted from “The Seagull” and “Life Sucks, or The Present Ridiculous,” adapted from “Uncle Vanya”).

San Diegans have seen – and loved – two of his most Jewish adaptations: Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “My Name is Asher Lev,” which had successful runs at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in 2004 and 2009, respectively. “The Chosen” earned him a Barrymore Award at the Arden Theatre, and it won the 2013 Outer Critics Circle Award in New York. Here at home, I gave David Ellenstein a Patté Award for Theatre Excellence for his direction of the piece.

This month will mark the San Diego premiere of a play inspired by Posner’s “first favorite author,” Kurt Vonnegut, widely acclaimed as one of the premiere American novelists of the 20th century. The title, “Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love),” comes from one of three early Vonnegut short stories Posner conflated.

The Vonnegut story by that name first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1961. The other two were published in the Ladies Home Journal: “The Long Walk to Forever” in 1960 and “Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son” in 1962.  All three were part of Vonnegut’s story collection “Welcome to the Monkey House” (published in 1968).

“I love Vonnegut’s work,” he says. “It’s all about the sweet and sour nature of the world. Early on, he was hopeful and ironic. Definitely reaching for something positive. By the end of his life, he’d lost the humor and became angry, depressed and cynical.”

But “at the moment when he began writing,” Posner asserts, “he had as clear an eye as I could possibly imagine. He saw the world in a way that helped me see the world, through my own perspective.”

 

A Sweet Story of Love

Posner started working with these stories 25 years ago, just after he graduated from Northwestern University, but he’s refined the piece over time. The subject of his play, as we’re told at the outset by the affable, folksy stage manager/narrator and sometime character is “Love. Pure and complicated.”

“As a night in the theater, it’s easy to love,” said The Oregonian, after the Artists Repertory Theatre production opened in 2012. According to Portlandstagereviews.com, it’s “a delightful, lyrical piece of love and simpler times – with more than a few belly laughs of a more homespun Vonnegut quality. Audiences will find themselves enchanted.”

“The adaptation is very true to the original stories,” Posner says, “involving the audience in a shared act of storytelling.”

The action takes place in the small mythical town of North Crawford, Conn., 1962, on the cusp of the cataclysmic changes that would overtake our country, including war, assassinations and the Beatles. What you might call a simpler time in optimistic, pre-ironic America.

The North Crawford Mask and Wig Club, “the finest community theater in central Connecticut,” is where we first meet our guide, Tom, who tells us that the company is putting on a show for us. “We’re on a theater stage here, so anything we do is automatically suspect – fishy, even.”

Still, Tom insists, “the stories you’re going to hear are true, whether any of them happened or not.”

This is the conceit Posner conceived “to make the evening mount up to more than the sum of its pieces. The stories spoke to each other in interesting ways.”

Last month, the play was mounted at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre and now, at Indiana Repertory Theatre, as well as North Coast Rep (Jan. 8-Feb. 2)

“Knowing the kind of work [North Coast Rep artistic director] David Ellenstein does, and how wonderfully he’s handled my other work, I sent him the script,” Posner says.

Ellenstein won’t be directing this time (Andrew Barnicle is guest director), but he chose the script because it was “charming, funny and sincere. And it was very well received in Oregon – by critics and audiences alike.”

“The line between heartfelt and sentimental is always tricky,” Posner admits. “This is a bit of a valentine. What I love, in literature and theater, is things that tell the truth about how somebody is looking at the world. When it’s very truthful, from the heart, people can see that. Here, even in a very positive, optimistic look at simpler times, there are still struggles.

In “A Long Walk to Forever,” a soldier goes AWOL to ward off the marriage of his life-long (undeclared) love. In “Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son,” a husband/father leaves behind his dazzling but demanding new wife, a Hollywood diva, to return to his family. And in “Who Am I This Time?,” a nebbishy store clerk finds his heart, passion and soulmate onstage, completely transforming himself into whatever character is called for (hence, the title). The piece underscores the illusionary line between life, love and theater.

These flawed, very human characters take what you might call a long walk to humanity, redemption and love.

Posner remains busy, collaborating with his wife on a children’s piece set to open at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  And he’s co-directing “The Tempest” with Raymond Joseph Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, with music by Tom Waits and movement by Pilobolus Dance (opening April 1 at the Smith Center in Las Vegas and then at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston).

But he retains warm feelings for “Who Am I This Time?”

“I love this piece. I’m very proud of it, and I hope it has a long, rich life. I love to watch people laugh, and reach over for the hand of their partner during the show. It puts a positive energy in the world in a way I find very lovely. It makes us feel more connected in the good struggle together.”

 

Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love)” runs at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, Jan. 8-Feb. 2. Information and tickets are at (858) 481-1055, and northcoastrep.org.

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