BWW Reviews: MY NAME IS ASHER LEV at Gamut/Harrisburg Shakespeare Company
Many readers are familiar with author Chaim Potok's 1972 novel "My Name is Asher Lev," which introduced many to the world of Hasidic Jews, most notably to the dynamic tension between Torah-observant Judaism and secular art (whether visual or, as in Potok's own life, literary). Playwright Aaron Posner transformed the novel into a play, first performed at the Arden Theatre in 2009, that is currently in an extended Off-Broadway run at The Westside Theatre. Central Pennsylvanians, however, can see the same show, MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, currently performed by Gamut Theatre Group/Harrisburg Shakespeare Company at Gamut Theatre at Strawberry Square, Harrisburg, directed by HSC's own J. Clark Nicholson.
The Off-Broadway performance is done by a cast of three; however, Nicholson has, wisely, chosen to use a larger cast causing less doubling of the roles other than Asher himself. This wisdom is nowhere more prominent than at the moments that Asher's parents, Aryeh and Rivkeh Lev, are not on stage, for they sit at either side of the stage, silently observing Asher's life without their presence like a pair of sphinxes silently rendering judgment on their artist son - as they do, vocally, when they are present on stage.
Thomas Weaver is a fine choice as Asher Lev, yeshiva student turned painter. Although he lacks what might be termed Yiddishkeit, he does have something more important, an ability to convey rapid changes in age and mood as he, the narrator, shifts between his present self and his various childhood selves, either age six and scribbling, or age 13 and receiving his rebbe's blessing on his Bar Mitzvah, or somewhat older, in Italy, discovering Michelangelo. The sight of an adult man on the floor acting out a child's despair by scrawling pictures in a notebook could be amusing if handled less deftly; here, Weaver conveys a child's sense of emotional pain that he is unable as yet to express in words. Weaver is able to portray emotion even in the opening, closing, and rearranging of the three folding chairs that are the only props or furniture on the entire stage, and that become everything from kitchen chairs to the Pieta through the course of the evening.
The true cores of this play are the tension between religious belief and the truths told by art, and the tension between generations in all families regardless of religion. Prior BWW nominee, Jay Miffoluf, is an Asher Lev to be reckoned with, apparently stern and unyielding, but in reality completely perplexed by a son whose artistic genius must express itself regardless of the opprobrium he faces in his community. A man whose very job relies on being less than completely imaginative as a religious and political emissary of his religious leader (imagine being an emissary of the Pope, for an equivalent regimented position lacking in the ability to stray outside of the box), he cannot conclude how he has wound up with such a child - one who is only encouraged by Sanford Krevsky's Yitzchok Lev, the uncle who reveals to the boy Asher that there is a professional art world with Jews working in it, and that Asher himself may do so someday.
The Hasidic sect described in Potok's novel is the thinly veiled Lubavitch community headquartered in Brooklyn but even in the 1950's and 1960's international in scope. It was headed for many years by its Rebbe, known simply as "THE Rebbe," Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a man of formidable intellect and an astonishing insight into the juxtaposition of secular and sacred. Local theatre veteran Jay Krevsky plays the fictional sect's Rebbe, a man who, despite the limitations of his assistants' world views, is able to give Asher Lev a Bar Mitzvah blessing to create art, and to give him a mentor, the famed secular Jewish artist Jacob Kahn. Krevsky's Rebbe has a small but pivotal part, and Krevsky wisely makes the most of it.
Dan Burke, as Kahn, the predominant character of the second act outside of Asher himself, gives a compelling portrayal of an aging artist who sees making another artist great as the finest artistic gift he can present to the world. His tirades on Asher's Orthodoxy appear to make little dent in Asher's outlook until the day that they all come together for him - though his religious rebellion does not make him secular, like Kahn, but merely less stringently Orthodox (although for Hasidim, this in itself is a matter of crisis). Kudos to Burke for his fine work in portraying Kahn's gradual physical decline in a manner one's knees and hips can practically feel as they watch him walk.
Kathryn Spurr plays Rivkeh Lev, Asher's mother, a woman torn in multiple directions, and one poised to become an early feminist had she only known more of the outside world - not only is she caught in the struggle between Asher and his father, but after her brother's death, and while clearly struggling with depression and other mental health issues, she demands to be allowed to study and to take college classes in order to take over her brother's work. Spurr is devotedly motherly, though perhaps not as Jewish a Jewish mother as she might be, but her depiction of a woman at The Edge of her rope over her brother's untimely death is well worth seeing. Emily Gray, as art gallery owner Anna Schaeffer, gives the unfortunately small part some amusing interaction with painter Kahn over Aryeh's talent and work.
If you are familiar with the novel, do not be surprised by the slight differences between the novel and the play, which stands firmly on its own two feet. If your knowledge of Jewish themes on stage is limited to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, the only thing you'll recognize is the battle between parents and children over tradition - although Asher Lev provides to his father a spirited defense of tradition in art, as well as in religion, an argument that his otherwise aesthetically-challenged father does understand. MY NAME IS ASHER LEV is a knowing and emotionally charged drama that reveals as much about the nature of art as it does about humanity. It's worth your time to catch this one. At Gamut through February 3. Visit gamutplays.org or call 717-238-4111.