In a Love Triangle with Art & Religion: My Name is Asher Lev at the Lyric Stage Company

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When someone inherits more than one tradition, how can he make them mesh? For many contemporary Jews, this question may arise when parents come from different faiths or different Jewish streams. For the title character of My Name is Asher Lev, the challenge arises when a Hasidic boy turns out to be an artistic prodigy. Religious Jews aren’t meant for the arts, we’re told. To paint requires breaking all manner of mitzvot (religious laws), from the second commandment (you know, the one about graven images) to the rules of modesty and honoring one’s parents. Those last two are particularly troublesome for Asher, whose artistic impulse leads him to paint nudes and eventually crucifixion scenes featuring his parents. To use director Scott Edmiston’s art-world metaphor, Asher must figure out in which frame he will live his life. 

created at: 2011-02-14

Aaron Posner’s stage adaption of Chaim Potok’s novel is burdened with the challenge of externalizing what is essentially an inner battle for the protagonist. Jason Schuchman, as Asher, takes the bulk of the play on his shoulders, never leaving the stage as he juggles the responsibility of narration with portraying Asher at ages seven through adulthood. Schuchman is an engaging storyteller, a vital skill for this narration-heavy script. However, the encumbrance of all that exposition occasionally bogs him down in many scenes requiring him to switch between adult Asher, the narrator, and his childhood self every other line. His performance would be more compelling had he embodied Asher at ages 7, 10, 13, etc. rather than Asher’s memory of himself at those ages.

At the core of the play is a question of integrity — of wholeness. Towards the beginning of the show, Asher’s father  (Joel Colodner), a rabbi, explains that the world is broken, and that it is the task of humanity to help make it whole. While this immediately echoes the kabbalistic understanding to tikkun olam, repairing the world, it later becomes clear that the story takes place in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the world is still broken from the Holocaust and Stalinism. Each character goes about repairing the world in his own way: Asher’s father spreads the teachings of his Rebbe throughout Europe. Asher’s mother (Anne Gottlieb) takes up the cause of liberating Russian Jews. Asher seeks integrity through his art, although not by bringing beauty into the world as his mother would have it, but by bringing truth. Asher ultimately seeks to integrate his artistic passion with his Hasidic life. Whether Asher’s brand of integrity, wholeness of personality, is compatible with his father’s sense of ethical conviction, ultimately splits the family.

Colodner deftly juggles the roles of Asher’s stern but loving father and his equally demanding and equally loving mentor, painter Jacob Kahn. Gottlieb struggles a bit making the Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic phrases of Hasidic vocabulary sound authentic, but her portrayal of Asher’s mother provides the emotional anchor of the play. Torn between nurturing her son’s talent and keeping her family together, Gottlieb wrests the play’s conflict from the realm of philosophy to that of human drama.

Ultimately, though, the play favors ideas over emotions, and at the end of the performance, I felt as though I had engaged in an interesting though-experiment  without a whole lot of emotional engagement. Can we be proud of things that embarrass our parents? Can art repair the brokenness of the world? Fascinating questions to debate, but whether that’s what you want to get out of an afternoon at the theatre is a different kind of question entirely.

My Name Is Asher Lev is now playing at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through March 12, 2011, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston. Performances are Wednesday and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Wednesday matinees at 2:00 pm on February 16 and March 9. Tickets are $25 – $52; special pricing available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets available from the box office (617-585-5678) or online.

Photo credit: Jason Schuchman as Asher in My Name Is Asher Lev. Photo by Mark S. Howard.

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