The narrative of an individual choosing a path that is not popular within his or her own family, community or culture is a common plot across literature, drama and film. But what happens when the central character has a deep desire to have each foot firmly planted in both worlds?
That’s a question that is explored in Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel My Name Is Asher Lev, and in playwright Aaron Posner’s acclaimed and highly theatrical adaptation of that novel.
The play, also called My Name Is Asher Lev, premiered in 2009 at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company and has since been a popular selection at theaters across the country, including Circle Theatre, where it opens in a regional premiere this weekend.
“Potok — and Posner — have focused on the huge dilemma: What does a person do when they are deeply called to be or do something that is incompatible with their family’s cultural wishes for them?” says Harry Parker, who’s directing this opening production of Circle’s 2015 season.
“For Asher, it’s the puzzle of how can he pursue his gift for art, when his family of strict Hasidic Jews believes such activity is a waste of time at best, and profane at worst,” says Parker.
Potok had become America’s bestselling author of Jewish fiction with his previous novel, The Chosen (1967), and Asher Lev built on that success. The Brooklyn-born author was interested in being an artist, even sneaking into Manhattan for free art lessons as a teenager, and his experience informs Asher Lev.
The title character is a painter, something met with disapproval by his parents and others in his orthodox community, where the focus is on devoting one’s life to studying the Torah and Talmud, or going into a more noble — and financially secure — profession like law or medicine.
In Posner’s adaptation, Lev is played by an actor who stays on stage the entire 90 minutes (Sam Swanson at Circle). Seven other characters are played by just two actors, one man (David Coffee) and one woman (Lisa Fairchild), who switch roles in subtle ways.
“The challenges for David and Lisa playing multiple roles comes from the fact that the play is simple and theatrical, rather than ultra-realistic, so we aren’t in any way trying to hide the fact that they are doubling/tripling in many roles,” says Parker. “Actually, that’s part of the fun for the audience, but it requires the actors to create a different look, voice and feel for each character with only minimal costume changes.
“Posner has adapted the Potok novel masterfully and theatrically,” he adds. “He has focused on the intimacy of Asher’s story and distilled it down to its true essence. I love it because it moves so quickly — the scenes are short and packed with story and meaning, and it’s like a roller-coaster ride of emotional highs and lows careening towards the finish line.”
Steeped in history
The lineage of Jewish theater in America is rich and long, with Yiddish theatrical traditions following immigrants to New York, where the National Yiddish Theatre told their stories. Many of the major cities in the Northeast have dedicated Jewish theaters, telling traditional and contemporary stories of the Jewish experience.
Recently, Washington, D.C.’s Theatre J made headlines when artistic director Ari Roth was fired, allegedly for staging works that questioned the Jewish/Palestinian relationship.
There is not a theater organization in North Texas dedicated to Jewish theater, although various synagogues and Jewish community centers have drama programs that produce works from the wider theatrical canon, including musical theater.
Posner’s adaptation of Asher Lev — he also has adapted Potok’s The Chosen and several plays of Anton Chekhov, to name a few — is quickly becoming a story set in the world of Hasidic orthodoxy that is reaching a wider audience across the country. At Circle, the show is running for a lengthy six weeks, and one night has been sold out to the congregation of Temple Beth-El.
For this production, Parker and Circle executive director Rose Pearson recruited Rabbi Sidney Zimelman, retired from Fort Worth’s Congregation Ahavath Sholom, as a production consultant. Zimelman worked with the cast to make sure accents and cultural touches were accurate.
Posner said in one interview that one of his favorite aspects of theater in general is “how every actor can bring their own history, heart, and unique humanity to any story.”
Parker — who read about the play when it premiered and then pitched it to Pearson after reading the script and then the novel on which it’s based — couldn’t agree more. It should also speak to any audience member who has tried to step out of the box that’s held together by familial, religious or cultural boundaries.
“The story is universal: What does a person do when they want to be a political conservative, but they’re raised by rabid liberals? What happens to someone who is gay but their family disapproves? What happens to someone who wants to be an actor, but their parents won’t allow it?” Parker says. “What’s really intriguing about Asher is that he doesn’t just rebel and leave his faith to pursue painting — he tries to do both.”