Well, the superb Fountain Theatre and its resident genius-in-chief, Stephen Sachs, have done it again. They’ve mounted a just-about-perfect production: Chaim Potok’s classic novel My Name is Asher Lev, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner.
Set in 1950s Crown Heights, the Brooklyn home of the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, the play probes the conflict between duty, tradition, restrictive religion, and the wider world of culture and art.
By the age of six Asher Lev knew he was different from other boys. But it wasn’t a gender issue. It was art. He was obsessed with it, continually escaping into the world of his imagination, and his perceptive sensibilities, to the exclusion of almost everything else in his life.
To his mother it was a puzzling preoccupation, but she supported him. His father, however, had no understanding or appreciation for art. To him, his son’s art was, at best, “narishkeit” (foolishness), if not downright blasphemy. Young Jewish boys were expected to spend their days studying Torah and not wasting their time on “goyische” (Christian) pursuits.
Asher’s father, Aryeh, worked for The Rebbe, the authoritative and prophetic voice of the community, and spent almost all of his time traveling around the world to spread The Rebbe’s wisdom and to build religious schools and support religious outposts wherever he went. (Though it wasn’t specifically alluded to in the play, the primary mission of this Hasidic sect is to encourage non-observant Jews to return to the traditions and practices of Judaism in order to help bring on the Messianic Age.)
Asher, who loves and respects his father, as well as the religion that he has been so rigorously steeped in, tries to give up his painting. He is anxious to keep his mother from being torn in two by the philosophical conflict between him and his father.
Eventually, however, The Rebbe, recognizing Asher’s extraordinary talent, apprentices him to a prominent artist, a stern disciplinarian who, though Jewish, is not bound by religious precepts. “An artist reflects his life or comments on it,” he tells Asher. “I paint my feelings; I am a commentator on a personal vision.”
As he guides the now 22-year-old Asher into painting traditional artistic subjects, such as crucifixes and nudes, the artist acknowledges that “everything offends someone” and advises him that “the artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda.”
And so Asher goes on to paint his “masterpiece”: a portrait so raw that it shocks and alienates his parents, perhaps forever. Ironically, this incident is an actual part of author Chaim Potok’s biography, as he was a well-respected painter as well as a writer.
Although the play delves into the conflict between the orthodox Jewish tradition and “the outside world,” the conflict between generations, between diverse expectations, and the ongoing struggle to discover and be true to your own individual self, are themes that are universal and, in this stellar presentation, are bound to resonate with everyone.
And for that we can applaud Stephen Sachs, who directs three outstanding actors to the peak of perfection. Jason Karasev plays Asher Lev with passion, frustration, and determination. Joel Polis plays Aryeh, The Rebbe, the famous artist, and several other men with his usual aplomb, changing his voice, his demeanor, and his
clothing so expeditiously that, if it weren’t for his beard, you would hardly recognize him from one character to the next. And Anna Khaja plays Asher’s put-upon mother, worn to a frazzle by the effort to keep the peace.
My Name is Asher Lev is definitely a “must see.” This Los Angeles premiere can be seen and enjoyed at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, in Los Angeles, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through April 19th. Call 323-663-1525 for tickets.