Play: “My Name Is Asher Lev”
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus
Dates: October 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21, 23, 24
Tickets: $32-$36; Contact 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org
Story: Asher Lev is the only child of devout Hassidic Jews living in Brooklyn in the 1950s. His father is an educated man with degrees in political science who works for the local rabbi and the Hassidic community while his wife is charged with raising Asher in the family’s faith. Touched at an early age with an artistic bent, Asher spends much of his childhood and teen years torn between honoring his parents and their strict religious guidelines and his own proclivity toward painting and artistic expression, desires beyond the scope of his rigid upbringing.
At the suggestion of the rabbi, Asher is tutored by a well-known Jewish artist named Jacob Kahn. Tensions continue to mount as Asher dabbles in such taboo subjects as nudes and crucifixions, remaining in New York while his father is transferred to a position in Europe. Eventually, Asher’s emotionally fragile mother joins her husband overseas while her son continues to learn from Kahn. When Asher mounts an exhibition as a 19-year-old in a major New York art gallery, his viewpoint is on display for all to see, including a pair of controversial works that he fails to mention to his stern parents, with dire consequences.
Highlights: The 1972 novel by the late Jewish scholar/professor/artist/writer Chaim Potok was adapted by Aaron Posner, who produced the world premiere in 2009 in Philadelphia, a decade after his collaboration with Potok on the latter’s novel, “The Chosen.” New Jewish Theatre, which offered a rendering of “The Chosen” back in 2002, has mounted a beautiful and delicate presentation of this latest transference of a Potok novel to the stage.
Deanna Jent, who also will direct Mustard Seed Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Chosen,” has rendered a thoughtful and meticulously crafted interpretation that is rapt storytelling at its finest. With the considerable contributions of her three-player cast, this 90-minute, one-act drama is sobering and satisfying theater that is both stylish and taut.
Other Info: Robert Thibaut capably conveys the anguish and despair of Asher, a young man devoted to his parents but yet unable to extricate himself from the passion for artistic expression that has consumed him since he was a young boy. He’s actually better as a child than in certain moments when he reminisces, but it’s a consistently fine performance.
Terry Meddows and Lee Anne Mathews essay all of the remaining characters quite admirably. Mathews shows us the melancholic nature of Asher’s quiet mother, whose life is upended by the premature death of her brother, as well as a jet-setting art benefactor. Meddows smoothly conveys a variety of roles, from Asher’s relentlessly serious father to a small role as Asher’s convivial uncle and first ‘patron,’ as well as the glib, self-confident and no-nonsense artist Kahn. The smaller parts are crucial in providing contrast and relief from Asher’s oppressive background, one not dissimilar to Potok’s.
Dunsi Dai’s simple set accentuates a series of overhanging windows through which Asher’s mother lives much of her life peering vacantly into the streets below, handsomely illuminated by Glenn Dunn’s precise lighting. Michael Perkins’ haunting, poignant sound design is superior in and of itself and provides substantial underpinning for the action on stage. Costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and properties by Wendy Renee Greenwood successfully showcase both the strictures of Hassidic society as well as the flamboyance of the art scene.
“My Name Is Asher Lev” is a powerful and affecting work and a fine opening for New Jewish Theatre’s first full season in its new theater.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.