“My Name is Asher Lev"

--Irene Backalenick

Jewish theater has finally made its way into the suburbs! “My Name is Asher Lev” has just opened at the renowned Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. It is surprising that this non-sectarian non-profit theater would take on a Jewish theme, but perhaps not so surprising, since Long Wharf often features black plays and those of other ethnic groups. Perhaps artistic director Gordon Edelstein (who directs the play) thought it was time to give this ethnic group its place in the sun.

 

In any event, the play proves to be edifying for Jews and non-Jews alike. (Fortunately, program notes include a glossary. Otherwise, the uninitiated would be lost among the liberal sprinkling of Yiddish expressions.) This drama by Aaron Posner, explores the conflict between Orthodox Judaism and personal creativity. “Asher Lev” is based on a 1972 novel by Chaim Potek, who is always interested in the secular/spiritual conflict. How does a practicing Jew make his way in the greater world? What happens when inner creativity clashes with the strong traditions of Judaism? His award-winning novel “The Chosen” (1967) certainly dealt with that theme, as does “Asher Lev.”

 

Its hero, Asher Lev, is a pious Jew who also happens to be a gifted artist. He is raised by a father committed to spreading the word of Orthodox Judaism, a father who travels constantly throughout Europe, opening Yeshivas and encouraging its participants. But Asher, from earliest years, is driven to express himself as a painter. He makes contact with an art dealer, who steers him to an outstanding teacher. His father, of course, is horrified, particularly when Asher’s paintings involve naked women and crucifixes. Written in the first person, the story is indeed autobiographical, mirroring much of Potok’s own struggle.

 

But does this strong novel work in dramatic form? Actually, Posner has turned the story into a reading rather than a drama. The title character stands before the audience and tells his story. Short scenes fraught with conflict do intercept as the story moves forward, but essentially this is a read-aloud biography.

 

Nevertheless the Long Wharf production is first-rate, thanks to direction and acting. Pacing is impeccable, and three excellent players spell out the tale. Ari Brand in the title role and Melissa Miller as his mother (and other female characters) certainly grab the audience. Above all, Mark Nelson, in several roles as the father, teacher and rabbi, gives towering performances.

 

Whether “My Name is Asher Lev” is biography, novel, reading or play, it is worthy of attention. Jews and non-Jews alike will gain from its viewing.

 

 

This review also appears in nytheaterscene.com, national jewish post & opinion, jewish-theatre.com

 

 

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