note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
The battle between religion, art and secularism is the centerpiece of Aaron Posner’s dramatic play, “My Name is Asher Lev,” adapted from Chaim Potok’s beloved 1972 novel.
In a sense, the theme is autobiographical. Herman Harold Potok, known by his Hebrew name, Chaim, was born into an Orthodox Jewish family with strong ties to Hasidism, a fervent religious group.
Like his primary character, Asher Lev, Potok started painting when he was a child, and experienced an inner tug-of-war between his love of religion and family, and his yearning to write and paint for a secular world. The underlying theme is “kibbud ov,” the Yiddish term for honoring or respecting one’s parents.
Although Asher Lev’s parents, his rebbe and the community recognize the child’s precociousness, his father, Aryeh, is vehemently opposed to the boy’s “idleness” and “foolishness”. He insists Asher must concentrate on his religious studies. Aryeh, a self-described ‘wandering Jew” who spends much of his time traveling, establishing religious schools throughout the world, “doing the rebbe’s work,” comes from five generations of males who helped humanity, globally.
Asher’s dramatic clash between his ardent desire to paint the way he sees things and feels, and his father’s insistence that he put away his Crayola crayons and Eberhard pencils, and concentrate on his religious studies intensifies throughout the play.
Director Scott Edmiston’s hand-selected, three magnificent stars, Anne Gottlieb, Joel Colodner and Jason Schuchman, deliver passionate portrayals. Besides playing Asher’s father, Aryeh, Colodner portrays several other adult male roles, including Asher’s benevolent uncle, the rebbe, famous artist-sculptor Jacob Kahn, and a looming shadow in Asher’s troubled conscience.
As the play opens, strains of composer/sound designer Dewey Dellay’s music and designer Karen Perlow’s subtle lighting set a somber atmosphere. Symbolic candles of Jewish rites of passage and traditionalism are everywhere. A young artist, (Schuchman), wearing a traditional Hasidic skullcap and a prayer shawl carefully tucked inside his shirt, stands at an easel on a paint-spattered floor. He reminisces about when he was 12 years old, and his father traveled frequently, while his mother waited patiently at the window for his return.
At intervals, using a spotlit, suspended portrait frame, Asher, his mother Rivkeh, and father trace their ancestry in dramatic monologues.
Schuchman deftly shifts back and forth in time, as a 6-, 10-, 13-, 16-year-old and beyond, to a climactic tragedy that changes his mother’s life. Her brother and sole relative is killed in a car crash while performing important work for the US government in Russia. Gottlieb’s screams and agonizing grief pierce the air; her months of ensuing silence deaden their home.
Asher also undergoes an epiphany, losing his “gift” for three years. At 13, he experiences enlightenment, when the rebbe introduces him to famous Manhattan artist Jacob Kahn, 72, who agrees to become the boy’s mentor for five years. As Asher’s fame grows, so does his parents’ and Kahn’s pride. ”I sculpted a David,” Kahn exclaims. After Kahn and Asher travel to Europe, visiting Renaissance masterpieces, Asher’s style explodes on canvas, revealing his inner eye and feelings.
Asher’s fame skyrockets with his latest controversial masterpieces but create shame among his tight-knit religious community, his parents, and the rebbe.
Although this powerful play focuses on Jewish traditionalism vs. secularism, it easily applies to all ethnic groups trying to preserve their way of life in an enticing, embracing melting pot.
BOX INFO: New England premiere of one-act, 90-minute play by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, appearing now through March 12 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; Wednesday matinee, March 9, at 2 p.m. Post-show talk, Feb. 27, after the 3 p.m. performance. Tickets are $25-$52; seniors, $5 off; student rush, $10; group rates available. Call the Box Office at 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.