Emmy winner Richard Schiff plays Reb Saunders in Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chain Potok’s ’The Chosen.’
Emmy winner Richard Schiff plays Reb Saunders in Aaron Posner's adaptation of Chain Potok's 'The Chosen.' (Photo courtesy David Fertik / Barrington Stage Company )

PITTSFIELD -- It all started with a game of baseball. The year is 1944, and a league has formed between two nearby yeshivas -- Jewish religious schools dedicated to the study of the Talmud -- in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. Reuven Malter, the son of scholar and politically conscious Zionist David, is on one team, while Danny Saunders, son of Reb Saunders, a Hasidic rabbi, is on the other. Two teenage boys from opposite sides of Jewish life meet with the simple throw of a pitch and the crack of a bat, and their lives change forever.

The mundane event of a high school baseball game becomes the driving force behind the plot of Chaim Potok's enduring 1967 novel, "The Chosen," which follows the changing relationships between the two young men and their fathers. It's a simple story that on the surface looks like a narrative about the dynamics between sons and the fathers who want them to honor their legacies, but the novel is so much more. Set against the backdrop of World War II, it is also about a changing world in which tradition and the drive toward modernity clash -- Reuven, from the progressive household, wants to become a rabbi, while Danny, who comes from a home steeped in tradition, pursues a life of science.

It is this multi-layered aspect of the story that attracted playwright Aaron Posner, who in a collaboration with Potok himself, adapted the novel for the stage in 1999. Flash forward 14 years later, and Posner is revisiting Potok's world once more, directing a production of the play at Barrington Stage Company, which opens Sunday at 5 p.m. on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, after previews tonight and Saturday.

"I read the book in junior high, but it wasn't until later that I recognized its power," Posner said in an interview alongside actors Adam Heller and Richard Schiff, who play the two fathers.

"It is a story that possesses this universality -- on a number of occasions I have encountered parents of young people who are interested in going into the theater, and I'm always struck by people's resistance to their children going into the arts," Posner said.

"As this play reveals, so many parents stay intently focused on what they do as opposed to who their children are. It's this struggle of people who don't always have their eye on the prize about what really matters."

Posner said he did not grow to appreciate the late author's work until he met him in person. Posner was in Philadelphia at the Arden Theatre, the company he co-founded, and approached Potok to get some advice on a piece of Jewish literature he was hoping to adapt for the stage. He revisited "The Chosen," and immediately wanted to make it his next stage project. Posner pitched the idea of streamlining the narrative to just the four men, and not only did he get Potok's blessing, but the author agreed to collaborate with him on the adaptation.

It's a rare opportunity for a playwright to work closely with the author of the original text, and, in a way, Posner and Potok reflected their characters -- an older man passing down his wisdom to the next generation.

Like Potok, the play's two fathers are fiercely intelligent and committed to fostering ideas. Malter champions a bright new future, while Saunders maintains the traditions of the past.

"It's been interesting for me to jump into this role. I'm not a Zionist and I'm not very political, but my brother lives and thrives in Israel, so I've been able to observe his perspective," said Heller, who appeared at Barrington Stage last year in "My Name is Asher Lev," another Potok work adapted by Posner.

Heller never read Potok's novel before taking the role, only having seen its 1981 film version. But, like Posner, once he investigated Potok's work further, he was immediately drawn in.

For Schiff, an Emmy award-winner familiar to audiences as Toby Ziegler on "The West Wing," his character's reverence for tradition above all else stems from a desire to hold onto a world very distant from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Like Reb Saunders, Schiff's grandfather was a Jewish immigrant transplanted to Brooklyn, but unlike a rabbi, he was part of organized crime, interacting with the likes of Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky.

"My grandfather prayed every morning, he was religious in that regard, but he also killed people," Schiff said, with a deadpan stare. "He grew up as a tough kid in Brooklyn who beat others up so that he wouldn't get beaten up, and yet he always obeyed the sabbath to a degree. That's how powerful religion and tradition is -- like my character, you can't let that go."

Particularly resonant for Posner and Schiff is how the play reminds them of their own real life roles as fathers. Schiff has an 18-year-old son, who not unlike Danny, has a gift for science. His 12-year-old daughter is currently working on Barrington Stage's "Little Mermaid Jr." production. Posner has a 20-month-old daughter, and said that his new fatherhood has changed his perspective slightly on the play.

While Heller is not a father, he said that he has felt very connected, to his character's love of his son, and desire to see an educated younger generation strive for change.

Posner said that what is striking about the play is that "both sons follow paths opposite of who their fathers want them to be." It's an ironic twist that gives the story its power and universal appeal.

"There are a lot of places to enter Chaim's work," Posner said. "You can enter it through Jewish identity, or as a child of indomitable parents, or through the father and son dynamic. People find a lot of access to the story whether or not they are Jewish."