NJT production benefits from legendary author’s widow

Adena Potok

Susan Fadem, Special to the Light

Shoulders squared, pencil in hand, she sits, professional yet maternal, immersed as if hearing the words for the first time. This was three weeks ago, early into the rehearsal process for the New Jewish Theatre’s presentation of “My Name is Asher Lev,” which opens today (Oct. 6) and runs through Oct. 24.

Adena Potok, artistic consultant for the page-to-stage adaptation of her late husband’s novel, is seated around a table with the NJT’s director and cast, none of whom are Jewish. (Except for artistic director Kathleen Sitzer, neither are members of the production crew.)

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If cast members here were ever intimidated by the sturdy, 77-year-old widow of Chaim Potok, the scholar and ordained rabbi whose best-selling novels often centered on gut-wrenching struggles between the Hasidic community and the outside world, that fear vanished “after the first 10 seconds,” Adena Potok has confided.

During her 51-year marriage, she was always her husband’s first reader and editor. Though known not to “butter over criticism,” she says, she knew her husband’s thought process and words better than anyone, just as he knew hers. He died eight years ago but sometimes, she says, “It’s like yesterday.”

First off tonight, the curly-haired grandmother supplies the pronunciation of Shabbos and of “So, nu,” as in “What’s up?” Thus far she has spent six hours with the St. Louis cast, divided over the past two evenings. Tonight, she will spend another three hours, listening, penciling notes on the script, still not officially published, its latest version delivered just an hour before rehearsals began.

A copy of the “Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews” remains close by. About “backgrounding” and deepening their understanding, the questions from the cast are “very perceptive,” Adena Potok has said. She goes no further. “It’s not up to me to reveal that conversation,” she says.

Now a retired psychiatric social worker still living in Merion, Pa., she met Chaim Potok in 1952 when both were staff members in the Poconos at Camp Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism.

During a pause at rehearsals, she is asked about the future of the “My Name is Asher Lev” play, produced since 2009 in nearly a half-dozen venues across the United States, but until the NJT’s current production, never under the auspices of a Jewish theater.

After St. Louis, might the play, based on Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel of the same name, be headed for off-Broadway or even Broadway? Adena Potok will say only: “You have to talk to Aaron. It’s his call.” By Aaron, she means her longtime friend Aaron Posner, co-founder and now former artistic director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre.

It was Posner who had earlier approached Chaim Potok to collaborate on bringing the author’s “The Chosen,” published in 1972, to stage. During that partnership, Adena Potok recalls, “All I did was give them coffee or tea.”

When “The Chosen” premiered at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia in 1999, Chaim and Adena Potok were in the audience. Though Posner also spoke with Chaim Potok about a play version of “My Name is Asher Lev,” Potok died of cancer in 2002 at age 73, before their collaboration had begun.

In time, Posner asked Adena Potok to work with him. Despite some trepidation on her part, they discussed what she believed were the novel’s “main threads and conflicts.” They reread the novel many times and via the Internet, talked with through various drafts.

“Aaron (Posner) brought a track record of a successful prior adaptation and play direction. (From me) he was looking for a literary sensibility combined with historical and cultural sophistication … , both written and then crafted into the mounting of the play,” Adena Potok subsequently wrote in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

After a staged reading of Asher Lev, Posner did more rewrites. Adena Potok read and commented more. So did dramaturg Michele Volansky.

At Posner’s invitation, Adena Potok fell easily into the role of coach on costumes, nuances in meaning and accents. Though her parents had been kosher-keeping Labor Zionists and something of an anomaly – on Shabbos they rushed home from shul to hear Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the radio – she brought an in-the-soul comprehension of Judaism.

She also grasped the urge to paint. Chaim Potok had painted with oils as a child. His resumption as an adult was made easier after his wife, seeing him hunched over the bed with a canvas, bought him an easel. It became his practice to paint between novels. To test the feasibility of the painting that character Asher Lev reveals at the denouement of the novel, Potok did the same painting at home. Adena Potok still has it.

Based on her collaboration with Posner, might she someday write a play or even a novel? This time there is no one to defer to. “I’m too young to decide,” she laughs.

Adena Potok to appear

For the “Mini-Potok Festival” this month, Adena Potok will speak after a New Jewish Theatre student matinee of “My Name is Asher Lev,” on the morning of Oct. 22; after the opening performance that night of the Mustard Seed Theatre’s “The Chosen,” in the Fine Arts Building at Fontbonne College, 6800 Wydown Boulevard; and after the NJT’s 8 p.m. performance of “Asher Lev” on Oct. 23. Both productions are being directed by Deanna Jent.