It is a play that seems to be about art. But it is probably really about the art of familial relationships.
My Name Is Asher Lev, a stage adaptation of Chaim Potok’s acclaimed 1972 novel which opened Saturday at Circle Theatre, tells its tale through the eyes of its title character (played by Sam Swanson).
Asher, a Hasidic Jew living in post-WWII Brooklyn with his devout parents, wants to be an artist. We follow that quest from his earliest school days, when his gift first begins to bloom, through his young adult years, when his lifelong passion and determination for his calling attain him a qualified success.
In most of the scenes (the play is structured in a series of episodes in Asher’s life) in this regional premiere production, he is swimming upstream against the heavy current created by his parents’ (David Coffee and Lisa Fairchild, who also play other roles) objections, which are usually stated on religious grounds.
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These one-sided sparring matches (young Asher is a gnat battling heavyweights) take up the greatest part of this play.
But, along the way, he also encounters a few nurturing types, such as the old artist Jacob, who becomes an important teacher. Again, however, most of what he imparts to Asher turns out to be guideposts for living disguised as art lessons.
So, ultimately, this play is about how the central character negotiates his relationship with his parents, his art and his religion. Its most powerful message has to do with the societal need for each generation to separate itself from the control and thinking of the previous generation.
There is certainly nothing to fault about this production, directed by TCU theater department chairman Harry Parker.
The acting sparkles. Swanson does a nice job of conveying Asher’s feelings of youthful bewilderment and, later, the conflicted frustration that comes with his maturity. Coffee seems to delight in the meatiness of his role as Asher’s father and clearly delineates the various minor characters he plays from it. Fairchild exudes the crushing fatalism of her mother character.
Parker’s directing is particularly lean and mean in this production. He never lets his work get in the way of the fine trio of players that he has assembled. And, although this show is extremely heavy, Parker moves it so crisply that it feels even shorter than its tidy 90 minutes.
But while this drama is well presented on an almost bare stage, it is hard to say that it is always entertaining. There is a dark aura of pain permeating this 2009 adaptation by Aaron Posner that makes it difficult to become comfortable, or be satisfied, with the work as a whole.
All of the characters wear their religion like shackles. They seem to take great pride in their Jewish heritage. But if they take any joy in it, those feelings are totally obscured by the myriad limitations it places on their thoughts and actions.
They follow the whims of the Rebbe, their spiritual leader, with exactly the same sort of blind fanaticism as an oppressed population bowing to a despot.
The material is not naturally dramatic. The play’s structure feels more like the chapters of a novel than a theatrical arc. The text offers high-minded pontifications more often than it provides true give and take among the principals.
And it is grimly serious and self-important from its first speech to its last, with no hint of comic relief.
The acting is so good in this production that you are likely to care about the people being portrayed. But there is also a decent chance you will find them tiresome and wrong headed.