“My Name is Asher Lev,” adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, chronicles the artistic struggle of a young Hasidic Jew with an indelible gift for painting. From the time that Asher is a child, he must struggle between what his strict religious upbringing dictates versus what can only be a God-given talent and what he feels deep inside is his calling. While this play most definitely revolves around the Jewish faith, it also speaks to a wider audience in that it acutely addresses the pain of an artist who has to choose between acknowledging his true self and expressing his artistic vision even though it might cause pain to the ones that he loves. While this story is not a new one, it is an intriguing one. The path of an artist is rarely easy, and disapproval from at least one parent seems pretty common. However, the added obstacle of going against one’s faith adds a compelling edge to young Asher Lev’s journey, especially since his family adheres to such a strict set of beliefs.
Despite playwright Aaron Posner telling Asher’s story chronologically the timeline gets a bit muddled since some years are given much more focus than others and there are few references to Asher’s age. The character is played by the same actor throughout, Jason Karasev, and while his overall arc from a young boy into a man is done well, it is hard to keep track of how old he is from moment to moment. I spent much of the first half of the play trying to keep track of his age, and when I finally thought I had it figured out – late teens – it was stated that he was thirteen. Which means that the play starts out much younger in Asher’s life than I had guessed, making his accomplishments that much more profound.
The real issue with this production is why I had so much time to ponder his age, as opposed to being engrossed in the story. This production has a lot of yelling. Anytime someone became upset or frustrated the yelling would begin, and at a certain point it’s hard to stay engaged, no matter how interesting the story. Joel Polis, who played all of the male roles except Asher, and Karasev, both had lovely moments and parts of scenes that proved that they could do subtlety beautifully. Then they would fall back into the yelling and the angst. Anna Khaja, who played all of the female roles, was fantastic as the art dealer, but failed to convince as Asher’s mother. The mother’s love and concern was there, but unlike the two men in the cast, it was obvious even to a goyim like me that Khaja doesn’t speak Hebrew. In a production like this where the biggest point of contention is the family’s religion, it was jarring for the parts she said and sang in Hebrew to sound so foreign coming out of her mouth.
All of this aside, “My Name is Asher Lev” is a powerful and painful story. As muddled as the beginning was, the end was perfectly clear and heartbreaking as Asher is forced to choose between his passion and his faith. The silence that meets his decision is more profound than all of the previously raised voices combined. I was not wowed with this production, but it sparked enough of an interest that now I’d like to read the book.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News