BWW Review: MY NAME IS ASHER LEV Paints Stirring Picture of the Complexities Between Art and Faith
My Name is Asher Lev is a play written by Aaron Posner and directed by Aaron Sparks, adapted from the 1972 novel with the same title by Chaim Potok. It calls on its audience to imagine what it was like to be a Hasidic Jew whose artistic genius brings great conflict to his family and community in 1950s Brooklyn. It spotlights the struggle between one man's faith and obedience to family and his blasphemous artistic passions.
It is rare that a grown man can convincingly inhabit the body of a pre-adolescent, but somehow Spencer Sickmann manages to play his character, Asher Lev, at various ages and stages of development with deep tenderness and expressiveness. As the "notorious and legendary" observant Jewish artist who also happens to draw nudes (oh, and the crucifixion of Jesus, too), Sickmann as Lev narrates the story, often with long expository monologues that are bracing and captivating as he breaks the fourth wall to draw his audience in. He is an actor whose performance draws a collective, "Wow!" in the lobby after the show.
Chuck Winning, who plays Asher's father Aryeh, Asher's tutor Jacob Khan, and other men, is excellent in his portrayal of a firm but somewhat disconnected father whose concern is that Asher is dabbling in foolish pursuits. He is convincing in his dismissal, making Asher's childhood tense and almost unbearable at times. When Aryeh finally realizes Asher has a gift, Winning is clever at making subtle changes from contrary to warily supportive. As Khan, Winning presents a much more eccentric (for the day) artist, whose words of wisdom and mentorship help Asher come into his own artistic style. As Khan challenges Asher's comfort zones and imparts wisdom about an artist's responsibility to the art itself, their 5-year apprenticeship forces Asher to make difficult choices.
Amy Loui, who plays Asher's mother Rivkeh, art dealer Ann Schaeffer, and other women is remarkable in her ability to create wildly different characters. As Rivkeh, she is extremely dismayed by Asher's artistic reaches, insisting that if he must draw, he should focus only on drawing the "pretty things" that make the world better. When a cherished family member dies and her world falls apart, Loui deftly captures deep anguish and a desire to carry on in ways that will be meaningful. Still, Asher's style torments her and causes humiliation, all which are palpable in Loui's body language. There is one particular scene in which everyone in the Lev family is painfully exposed equally for who they are, and Loui's lip trembles so faintly yet powerfully, conveying everything excruciating that words can never say.
Rob Lippert's rustic scenic design and smart lighting with exceptionally well-managed sound design by Kareen Deanes complement the tone of the piece perfectly. Michele Friedman Siler's costumes are impeccably chosen, lending both bright and melancholy qualities to the production.
One need not have a deep knowledge of either Jewish tradition or art to appreciate and feel the profound struggle in choosing to follow one's true passion. I strongly urge you to find time in your schedule to see The New Jewish Theatre's production of My Name Is Asher Lev at the Jewish Community Center's Wool Studio Theatre through February 9, 2020. Tickets and more information here: https://jccstl.com/arts-ideas/new-jewish-theatre/current-productions/