BWW Reviews: MY NAME IS ASHER LEV Sparks Dialogue in Emotive Performance

By: Oct. 27, 2014

Irish writer and playwright Oscar Wilde once said, "Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known." But in a culture where art is considered a distraction from religious duty and where individual desires often come second to the strict observance of tradition, how can artistic expression prevail?

This question forms the basis of "My Name is Asher Lev," a 90-minute stage adaptation of Chaim Potok's 1972 book of the same name.

Presented in the Riffe Center's intimate Studio Two theater, which seats audience members around a multi-tiered wooden stage set with minimal props, CATCO's "My Name is Asher Lev" succeeds in bringing this classic story of self discovery to life with emotive performances from a small, but immensely talented cast.

From the time that the stage lights first dim to the actors' final bows, the audience is transported through time and space to the dining room table of a Hasidic Jewish family living in post-war Brooklyn.

It is here where we first meet Asher Lev (Isaac Nippert), who at the young age of 6--actually, as he is quick to add, at the young age of "six and three-quarters"--is sketching drawings of his mother that perfectly capture her personality and likeliness.

But soon, the novelty of Asher's artistic ability is lost on his father, Aryeh Lev (Ralph Scott), a serious man who has devoted his life to serving the Rebbe, the Brooklyn Jewish community's religious leader. He begs Asher to trade his crayons and colored pencils for textbooks so that he may fulfill his duty of spreading his faith throughout the world.

Disappointed with his son's inability to understand that an individual's life is best spent serving others, Aryeh leaves on a religious trip to Europe, but not before imploring his wife, Rivkeh (Melissa Graves), to "fix the problem" of their son's misplaced interests.

Tensions rise in the house as Asher struggles to make his father understand that his passions and gifts lie elsewhere, in the world of art, not in religious rituals or academic studies.

As Asher matures, he finds solace in his art, which he continues to pursue despite his father's disapproval and his mother's exasperation at futilely acting as mediator within her own family.

Asher's saving grace comes from an unlikely source--a man named Jacob Kahn, a successful painter who has essentially traded all other commitments, including practicing the Jewish faith, for his art. Asher is sent to study under Jacob with the Rebbe's blessing, and it is under Jacob's firm, yet insightful, mentorship that Asher refines his craft and flourishes as an artist.

But at what cost? Asher finds himself at a crossroads, torn between two traditions to which he wholeheartedly feels responsible, and must forge his own path of religious observance and artistic expression.

One of the most notable successes of CATCO's "My Name is Asher Lev" is the masterful versatility of the actors. Graves and Scott play a myriad of diverse roles, and excel in building distinctive, multifaceted personas for each and every character they portray. The cast's talent is enhanced and complemented by the brilliance of Steven Anderson's direction and artistic vision.

"My Name is Asher Lev" presents audiences with an hour and a half of thought-provoking theater that is sure to spark dialogue long after the show ends.

CATCO's production of "My Name is Asher Lev" is scheduled to run at the Riffe Center's Studio Two from Oct. 22 - Nov. 9.

Tickets may be purchased through the Ticketmaster website.

The Riffe Center is located at 77 S. High St.

Photo Credit: Ben Sostrom