If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan

“Asher Lev” Concludes Long Wharf Season

 

Chaim Potok’s moving, semi-autobiographical “My Name is Asher Lev” concludes the Long Wharf Theatre’s 2011-12 season on an impressive note. Adapted from Potok’s novel by Aaron Posner and smoothly staged by LWT Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, “Asher Lev” is a fitting end to an overall rewarding season in New Haven.

 

Set in various locations around Brooklyn and Manhattan in the 1950s, “Asher Lev” is the story of a young Hassidic Jew who -- nearly from birth -- harbors a deep longing to be an artist. Not only that, Asher Lev wishes to paint nudes and crucifixes which is forbidden by his religion and causes division between him, his highly religious father and mother and his sect. Asher’s desire to pursue his gift while still being an observant Jew is the main conflict that drives Aaron Posner’s faithful adaptation.

 

The novel-to-stage transfer is not always a smooth one, however. One only has to look at recent theatre productions of David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” (at Hartford Stage) or Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” (Long Wharf) and realize that the novel form brings its own set of problems in stage adaptation. Even at a lean 90 minute running time (no intermission), “My Name Is Asher Lev” still seems repetitive. And relying heavily on the role of Asher as narrator, the drama becomes a work with much more “tell” than “show” making one question the transfer to stage in the first place.

 

Still, you could not ask for a better trio of actors than those assembled at Long Wharf. Ari Brand is an ideal Asher Lev playing him most convincingly at a series of ages from youth to mature artist. Both Melissa Miller and Mark Nelson are outstanding as Asher’s conflicted but devoted parents. The actors also take on several other roles switching parts with ease. Mr. Nelson, who has given so many fine performances in his long career, adds a few more to his resume here. As Asher’s father, he never wavers from his deep religious convictions but then brings warmth and an outsized personality playing Asher’s verbose art teacher. Ms. Miller is immensely touching as a mother haunted by her brother’s untimely death and also thoroughly engaging as a worldly art assistant. Both actors have a memorable scene late in the play as Asher’s parents reacting to a controversial painting their son has done of them. The range of silent emotions that cross their faces while staring straight ahead is acting at its most subtle and powerful. We never see the actual painting and don’t need to. Their faces tell us all we need to know.

 

Eugene Lee’s adaptable scenic design makes a fine setting for Asher’s Brooklyn home and converts easily into other locations as needed. Chris Akerlind’s warm lighting bathes the play in nostalgia as do Ilona Somogyi’s authentic period costumes. The past and present scenes blend seamlessly under Mr. Edelstein’s direction and though the novelistic nature of the work is somewhat cumbersome, this presentation is still worthwhile. And worth seeing.

 

“My Name is Asher Lev” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre through May 27. For further information or ticket reservations call 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.

 

Tom Holehan is Chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


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