"My Name is Asher Lev"
By David A. Rosenberg
“My gift is demonic and divine, and it carries with it the power to hurt and the power to heal.” So says the young man before us, the eponymous character in “My Name is Asher Lev.” Adapted by Aaron Posner from the Chaim Potok novel, this is the story of the conflicts an observant Jew and gifted artist goes through when one tradition pits him against another. Although the play hasn’t entirely escaped the printed page (too much is narrated), this is a loving and ultimately moving evening, clocking in at an intermissionless 90 minutes.
Asher Lev is the son in an orthodox Brooklyn family that lives in a self-ghettoized, closed-in society. His mother, Riv, worries about the family, mourns her dead brother and takes to studying Russian. His father, Ari, travels the world establishing Yeshivas.
“The Talmud tells us that he who saves even a single life,” says Ari, “it is as if he had saved the whole world.” To which Asher retorts, “I’m also a life. Aren’t I precious?” These may be orthodox Jews, but they’re also acting out a common conflict, the one between the strict parent and the child who’s seeking to find his own place in the world.
When some in his community dub him “a traitor, a self-hater, a blasphemer,” Asher admits he is all that, yet more. His parents may not understand him, but they’re caught between condemnation and love. The community’s leader is likewise puzzled and offended yet recognizes and wishes to encourage talent.
Thus the battle is joined, an age-old one not confined to a particular ethnic group, although resonating more within unbending orthodoxies. Asher is a resolute, unapologetic figure who says of art that it is a “mystery of the sort theologians have in mind when they talk about words like wonder and awe.”
Eventually, the prodigious Asher studies with Jacob Kahn, a blunt art teacher. It’s one tradition vs. another. “You are entering a religion called painting,” says Kahn, challenging Asher to follow wherever his talent will lead. That it leads to a terrible clash with his parents is foregone but there are no heroes or villains here.
Asher is on a painful journey toward discovering where his sense of responsibility should be directed, toward what combination of family, community, art or self. He’s constantly torn: Adopting Christian iconography and painting unclothed bodies forces explaining to his father that some of his subjects are “nude,” not “naked.” It’s hard to believe such Dark Ages mentality, but there it is.
Asher is played with sincerity but not sentimentality by Ari Brand. Straightforward, proud of his gifts, Asher is no patsy and Brand walks that line between self-satisfaction and arrogance. As Asher’s mother, Melissa Miller lets us see the resilient woman beneath the compliant wife. As his father, the always-reliable Mark Nelson tempers his stubbornness with genuine affection. Both Miller and Nelson play other roles with the same degrees of specificity.