Asher Lev has perhaps the most important quality an artist can have: He feels compelled to create.
In Asher’s case, he’s a painter and he can’t not paint, and as a young prodigy he can’t help but draw. Asher also has a second essential quality that also cannot be denied: obvious overwhelming talent. His compulsion and ability cause a deep rift in his 1950’s Hasidic Brooklyn household, however, as his traditional parents struggle to understand his work, which deeply conflicts with their conservative Jewish beliefs and customs.
Though the new production at the B Street Theatre, “My Name Is Asher Lev” steadfastly works through these dynamics, the drama rarely feels as inspired as the paintings the title character creates.
Aaron Posner’s episodic 2009 adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel of the same name feels stilted through much of its 95-minute, single-act running time. The three-actor production comes alive during its dark emotional climax, but the rest of the play’s studied walk-up doesn’t enliven what is already dour subject matter.
Told by Max Rosenak’s Asher as both narrator and character, the early story shifts back and forth through Asher’s childhood, establishing him as a young genius fighting the stiff intransigence of his father, Aryeh (Joel Polis). Polis effectively portrays several male characters in Asher’s life including the Rebbe, leader of the fictitious Ladover Hasidic Jews; Yaakov, Asher’s uncle; and Jacob Kahn, a prominent and successful artist who mentors Asher.
Initially caught between father and son is Asher’s supportive mother, Rivkeh (Julie Voshell). After suffering the tragedy of her brother Yaakov’s death, Rivkeh withdraws into extended mourning and depression while more and more following her husband’s lead where Asher’s art is concerned.
In the play, set at the time of extreme oppression and persecution of Jews in Russia under Joseph Stalin, Asher’s devout father travels throughout Europe at the direction of the Rebbe, spreading their teachings. Though Aryeh is a highly educated man, he cannot understand Asher’s art and sees as it blasphemous and disrespectful of their religion and its values.
The play’s most complex character is the Rebbe, who clearly perceives Asher’s gift and the personal dangers they hold for the young man.
Still, the Rebbe puts the artist in contact with the older Kahn, who molds and pushes Asher toward his solitary destiny. Kahn tells Asher, “As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it.” While this also defines Aryeh and his sense of his religion, the absolutism leaves no room for compromise for either.
Directed by Buck Busfield and Jerry Montoya, the earnest production is encumbered by both its flat narration and the repetitively shifting time frames. Once Asher frees himself from the inhibiting structures of his family under Kahn’s knowing guidance, both he and the play open up with a sense of dramatic possibilities most of the production avoids.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder