A sensitive young man struggles with his heritage as he tries to make his own mark on the world. A predictable story, you might say? Well, My Name is Asher Lev is anything but predictable, and anything but ordinary. Writer Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel combines an intriguing story with a modest storytelling style to create a touching theatrical experience. It’s a tale about the power of art that manages to become a moving work of art in its own right. And South Camden Theatre Company’s stark production, directed in a straightforward fashion by Josh McLucas, tells the story in a quietly powerful fashion.
Asher Lev (played by Tyler S. Elliott in a gentle, compelling performance) is obsessed from a young age with drawing. That brings him into conflict with the members of his Brooklyn Hasidic community — and especially with his father, an aide to the Rebbe (leader) of their sect. When Asher says that he can’t help but draw, his father sneers “An animal can’t help it,” and blames Asher’s mother for failing to control their son. Mother, meanwhile, is haunted by her brother’s death and enrolls in college to broaden her opportunities, but still feels trapped between her husband and son, unable to make peace.
Eventually the Rebbe recognizes Asher’s talent and sends the boy to study with Jacob Kahn, an artist who teaches more than just technique. “Art is not for people who want to make the world holy,” says Jacob in one of the many pronouncements that dare Asher to change the way he sees the world. Asher achieves fame, but things don’t improve at home, and eventually he is inspired to paint his mother’s torment in a way that changes his relationship with his parents forever.
Asher Lev isn’t a black-and-white story of the old world versus the new world. Asher remains an observant Jew and never rejects his father’s faith, just his father’s contention that religion is our only way of understanding the world’s mysteries. It’s a subtle distinction, and this story is told in a subtle and effective way. For instance, even though Asher’s art is discussed throughout the play, it’s never shown; that’s a shrewd decision, since what it actually looks like doesn’t matter as much as the effect that it has on others.
And we see that effect in the wide-ranging performances of Steve Gleich and Stacy Skinner, who play not only Asher’s parents but all of the other characters too. Gleich is especially good as he uses changes in accent and attitude to switch between playing the ornery father, the somber and judicious Rebbe, a warm uncle and the smiling, subversive Jacob Kahn.
McLucas’ intimate production allows the audience to focus on the torment cascading across Elliott’s face as he is torn between his father’s bullying and the freedom that art promises him. Key to the production’s success are James Guckin’s sound design, which features some lovely, gentle fingerpicked guitar; Robert Bingaman’s evocative set design, in which one room authentically evokes both an austere apartment and a bohemian art studio; Joshua Samors’ lighting, which effectively illustrates the anguish suffered by Asher’s mother; and the gripping words of Posner’s script.
My Name is Asher Lev is a show about art and religion, but it never feels preachy on either subject, and it’s not just a series of dry debates either. It sparkles with life as it examines a struggle as old as the Torah and as new as the latest brush strokes on Asher’s canvas.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
My Name is Asher Lev plays through Sunday, May 21, 2017 at South Camden Theatre Company, performing at The Waterfront South Theatre – 400 Jasper Street, in Camden, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.