Adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, January 28. Continues until February 26
The script for My Name Is Asher Lev is a romantic and self-regarding account of what it means to be an artist. But the script also contains considerable intelligence and honest emotionality, which this Pacific Theatre production makes the most of.
In Aaron Posner’s stage adaptation, as in Chaim Potok’s novel, painter Asher Lev must negotiate the painful conflict between his prodigious talent and the Hasidic Judaism of his Brooklyn community. Asher’s father, Aryeh, suspects that his son’s calling may spring from moral darkness. Rivkeh, Asher’s loving but anxious and depressive mother, is more sympathetic, but she wants Asher to paint birds and flowers, to make the world a prettier place. Fortunately, their religious leader, the Rebbe, intervenes: he sets Asher up with Jacob Kahn, a great—albeit curmudgeonly—artist who becomes Asher’s mentor.
One thing is absolutely clear in all of this: Asher was a prodigy from the day he was hatched, a genius with ferocious faith in his gift. When he was six, a visiting uncle compared his work to Marc Chagall’s. In the play, no artistically sensitive person can look at one of Asher’s images without being stunned into breathlessness by its beauty. The youngest artist ever to be exhibited in a major Manhattan gallery, Asher receives a rave review in the New York Times, the show sells out, and his works command staggering prices.
Held up against the real lives of the vast majority of artists, this is the stuff of naive fantasy.
But it’s not stupid. The story engages some of the real costs of being an artist. As an artist, you draw on your life, and your self-exposure may also expose others—painfully. Asher also comes to a humbling realization: people like his father, whom Asher regards as aesthetically blind, create their own kind of art in the way they live their lives.
The playwright, as well as this production, presents Asher’s formative relationships with passion and delicacy. Nathan Schmidt plays a number of characters, including Asher’s furiously intelligent father, a rambunctious uncle, and the crusty Kahn. Impressively, Schmidt disappears into these roles. And there is no more transparent actor in town than Katharine Venour. Her portrait of Rivkeh is skinless—and moving. In his Vancouver debut, Giovanni Mocibob, a recent arrival from Alberta, commands the stage as Asher.
Lauchlin Johnston contributes a simple but ingenious set: a tall window that can turn, angle, and move on tracks—even transforming, at one point, into a table. Sound designer Luke Ertman does an excellent job of supporting the play’s moods with music that’s sometimes mournfully traditional and sometimes seductively sensual. Morris Ertman directs with a sure hand: some of the evening’s loveliest moments involve characters who reach out to touch others—but can’t quite connect.