Fort Worth — A father, a mother, a son—and the sound of two worlds colliding.
It’s hard not to hear echoes of other stories—Fiddler on the Roof, Yentl, The Jazz Singer—in Circle Theatre’s thoughtful regional premiere of My Name is Asher Lev, adapted by playwright Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok (The Chosen). There’s even a quiet soundtrack to the play that sounds a bit like all of them—keening clarinets, singing violins.
Asher Lev tells of a great painter in the making, a boy with crayons, pencils, paint—and an unstoppable passion to depict the world. It’s a memory play, the artist recalling his mid-century childhood and youth in a devout, activist family of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. And in this story, the conflict isn’t just between tradition and modernity, conformity and individual will—it’s between an ancient tradition almost devoid of pictorial art (in fact, with an aversion to it) and the tradition of western Art itself. Je suis Asher Lev? One feels immediately protective of the budding artist, and yet....Madonnas and crucifixions, nudes and nihilism—what’s a nice Jewish boy to do with all that?
“Be a great painter, Asher Lev,” the artist’s boyhood mentor tells him. “It is the only justification for the pain you are about to cause.”
Three actors take on all the roles in this packed 90-minute story—quite a workout. Sam Swanson is Asher Lev at every age: a little boy cheering his mother with “pretty” pictures he already knows aren’t true, a growing teen who resists his father’s expectations, a young artist wandering the art-drenched streets of Florence and Paris. David Coffee plays “The Men” in Asher’s life: his brilliant father and uncles, the wise Rebbe—and the crusty artist Jacob Kahn, the non-observant Jew the Rebbe calls into Asher’s life as teacher, counselor, provocateur. Lisa Fairchild plays “The Women”—including Asher’s mother, caught between husband and son, and a Manhattan gallery owner who recognizes his talent.
Quick changes are effected onstage, with the actors half-visible behind small screens at the back of Clare Floyd DeVries’ bare, ‘50s utilitarian set, which centers on the large wood-framed window of the family’s Brooklyn apartment—a window where his mother stands waiting and worrying, where Asher’s eyes absorb the streets and people who nourish his art.
As in the book, we never see Asher Lev’s art—we take it on faith that he’s a modern art star, the notorious and legendary Lev the whole world knows. And because the art is invisible, the words of this play are, literally, everything. Each of the actors has a feel for the distinctive, slightly antique language of Potok’s characters, and director Harry Parker keeps things high-energy: yes, it’s all talk—no guns drawn, no punches thrown—but this is a battlefield (of words) all the same.
Among Swanson’s many effective moments is his sensitive depiction of the young Asher’s response to the view out a rainy window—his certainty that “the streets are crying” and he must get that pain on paper. Fairchild has a sweet bluntness as the mother: “You exhaust me,” she says of the struggles between father and son—but she loves and supports both of them, while keeping dreams of her own alive. Coffee’s showiest role is that of the sharp-edged older artist, Jacob, who tells Asher that art is a religion, too, a religion of “goyim and pagans.” Better he should be a baker, says Jacob, who knows what it cost him to live that life—and knows Asher will pay, too.
It’s a fine production, though Posner’s script—which had a 2012-2013 New York run and took the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play—suffers a bit from the feat of compression it took to get this sprawling story down to an hour-and-a-half of stage time. Not surprisingly, the stage favors the loud and passionate—so we get too much of the father’s thundering anger, and not enough of the quiet, loving family moments (particularly between Asher and his father) that kept the novel in balance. Asher’s art will cost him dearly because he loves his parents, and they love him. If they didn’t care about each other, the stakes wouldn’t be so high. Three warm, heartfelt performances from a great cast, however, do much to compensate for the script’s built-in tonal problem.
My Name is Asher Lev can be seen as a universal coming-of-age story, but its truest power derives from having its feet planted in a vividly realized culture at a particular time in history. As his parents pour their passion into the work of healing a world broken by war and Holocaust, it’s easy to see where Asher’s own will and passion came from, this driven son of driven parents.
Are we asked, then, to judge the relative worth of their striving—to choose between the two ways of being in the world? It seems that Posner—following Chaim Potok’s lead—leaves us with more questions than answers. Can this conflict ever be resolved? Does genius trump all, even family love? Is Asher’s art demonic, divine—or a constant search for equilibrium between these extremes? Do today’s artists—much less their public—still feel that passionately about the importance of art and the artistic vision…and if not, how much have we lost?
Art is not for people who want to make the world holy.
Art is the scream waiting to get out.