When I was a young girl, I burned for Asher Lev. While others pined for rock stars or sitcom cuties, I and a handful of like-minded geek-girls used to read Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel over and over and sigh over Asher Lev—the brilliant and tortured young artist who was exquisitely torn between his art and his stern parents and strict Hasidic upbringing.
We longed to be like Asher Lev—consumed by art and the hunger to express the darkness within, disapproving elders and religious conventions be damned. Pages of the book were soaked with tears as we railed against Asher’s parents—how dare they try to keep him down!—and anyone else who didn’t understand him the way we bookish shiksas did. Needless to say, we all fantasized about comforting him in ways that probably would not be acceptable in your typical Lubavitch society.
A theatrical production of “My Name is Asher Lev”—what could be a better manifestation of adolescent rebellion and hope? It’s like Holden Caulfield knocking on your door and asking if you want to go on the carousel.
Adapted by Aaron Posner and directed by Jeremy Skidmore, Asher Lev fervently captures the passion and intensity of the novel. It is a beautiful, cerebral production, at once romantic (Tony Cisek’s set and Dan Covey’s lighting strikingly evoke the divine spark of Asher Lev’s canvas-strewn studio and the melancholy of his family’s cloistered apartment) and rigorous—like any satisfying intellectual discussion should be.
Like the book, it makes you question whether you can be a great artist and a good Jew (or Christian) and whether genius gives you the right to inflict so much pain on yourself and others. It also forces you to think about personal responsibility versus personal expression. How many modern plays incite that kind of big-issues discussion—precious few.
Set in a secular Hasidic community in 1950s Brooklyn, Asher Lev is a wrenching coming-of-age story as artist-prodigy Asher Lev (Alexander Strain) struggles with honoring his gift and honoring his faith, as well as the parents who haunt his life and art. Mr. Strain is an almost scarily determined in the role, seemingly capable of burning holes through the canvases with his gaze. There is arrogance in his portrayal, but also neediness and vulnerability.
Lise Bruneau and Adam Heller play the parents, in addition to other figures who come and go in Asher’s single-minded existence—his artist-mentor Jacob Kahn, the Rebbe who presides over Asher’s community, a dynamic art gallery owner, and the nude model who takes Asher’s art to the next level and his religious practice into the realm of blasphemy.
Miss Bruneau and Mr. Heller are masterful in these roles. Miss Bruneau takes a nuanced, physical approach, stalking and runway-confident as the art dealer and model, but then she poignantly folds into herself to become the mother—an intelligent woman diminished and apologetic in her roles as referee and helpmate to her equally strong-willed son and husband. Mr. Heller, conversely, uses his voice commandingly to convey the life-force brio of Jacob Kahn and the wisdom-soaked cadences of the Rebbe, as well as the roaring confusion and frustration of Asher’s father.
Seeing Asher Lev on stage as an adult is a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, there is the sight of Asher Lev painting in his studio, which brings back every pimpled emotion of long-ago youth. “Look, he’s stripped to the waist and wearing a yarmulke,” my best friend of 30 years whispered to me in the darkened theater. “Have you ever seen anything more erotic?”
Agreed, but on the other hand, viewing Asher Lev through grown-up eyes allows you to see more than Asher Lev’s romantic and rebellious quest to be an artist. You also notice that he’s something of a monster, even as a child controlling what happens in the household and asserting himself between his mother’s relationship with her husband. The stage version seems more balanced than the novel, as you are able to glimpse that Asher Lev is the product of three single-minded people spinning in their separate, lonesome galaxies.
You also see in Round House’s entrancing production the truth of what it is like to have a genius for a child. Asher Lev’s parents love him–and they also fear him. Isn’t that the way we are supposed to feel about God?
My Name is Asher Lev
Adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore
Co-produced by Round House Theatre and Delaware Theatre Company
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV