BWW Review: MY NAME IS ASHER LEV at Playhouse On Park
What makes someone a true artist? Does it have to do with skill? Passion? A unique eye? Or is it about letting go of earthly things and embracing the traditions set forth by generations of artists before them? And what happens when the path to artistic enlightenment leads to a deep-seated conflict with one's values, religion, and family expectations? Such are the conflicts at the heart of Aaron Posner's MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, based on the book by Chaim Potok, which is now playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, CT.
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, like many stories that have come before it, illustrates the conflict between old and new, past and present, family and fate. But in this play, these emotions play out in the life of a young Orthodox Jewish boy in Brooklyn, whose name, as you might have guessed, is Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel). Asher lives in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, NY in the 1950's with his father (Dan Shor), who travels all over the world opening Yeshivas for the Rebbe (also Dan Shor) and his mother (Stefanie Londino) who dutifully waits by the window for his return while caring for young Asher, a gifted artist who spends his youth drawing everything he sees. His parents discourage him since they feel that art is "Narishkeit" (or foolishness) and they want Asher to complete his studies and play his part in the community, like his father (and his father before him.) And though he tries to obey his parent's wishes, he simply can't deny his artistic nature. Enter the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of their community, on Asher's 13th birthday who introduces him to Jacob Kahn (Dan Shor) who takes young Asher under his wing and teaches him about art and the joys and sacrifices that come with it. Asher blossoms into an artistic prodigy under Kahn's tutelage creating an internal conflict for Asher, and an external one for his parents and their tight-knight and tradition-bound community. But the heart of the story is really about coming to terms with who you truly are and once discovered, how to be true to that identity.
Aaron Posner's script for MY NAME IS ASHER LEV is tight, lyrical and captivating. By having Asher narrate his memories, Posner makes him a commentator while also giving the actor portraying him the chance to act out the story live. Speaking of acting, Jordan Sobel is brilliant as Asher Lev. He switches seamlessly from 10-year-old, to 13-year-old, to adult Asher, all while delivering a steady stream of narration and telling his own story (and never leaving the stage). His delivery was conflicted, nuanced, complex and simply marvelous. As all the men (including Asher's father, the Rebbe, Jacob Kahn, etc.) Dan Shor also gives a stellar performance. He delivers a stern father, a learned and wise Rebbe, and a gregarious Jacob Kahn, without missing a beat. And as all the women, but most notably, Asher's mother, Stefanie Londino gives a beautiful portrayal of a young woman trying to follow her own calling while learning how to deal with her own personal grief and her son's gifts and chosen path.
Joseph Discher's direction of the 90-minute production (with no intermission) is well-executed. He uses the full Playhouse on Park stage to seamlessly take the audience from moment to moment in Asher's memory. His vision is focused and clear and the audience is transported through the performances and the setting. Speaking of setting, David Lewis' scenic design is very effective, using the two large windows of Asher's boyhood apartment as effective focus for the narrative. Lisa Ann Steier's costumes are spot on, authentically capturing the orthodox clothing of the main characters with a bit of 1950's flair where appropriate. Joseph Beumer's lighting punctuates the more emotional scenes quite well, and Rider Q. Stanton's sound design adds just the right about of sonic color to the production.
Overall, Playhouse on Park's MY NAME IS ASHER LEV is an intimate, captivating, and thought-provoking look at one young man's journey of self-discovery and the age old struggle between following your passions and fulfilling the expectations of your family and community. It is beautifully presented and skillfully performed and is not one to miss!
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV runs at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, CT through May 12th. For more information, call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 or visit www.PlayhouseOnPark.org. Playhouse on Park is located at 244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT 06119
Photos courtesy Meredith Longo.