Philadelphia’s own Arden Theater company presented the world premier of My Name is Asher Lev, the first play commissioned by the Arden and based upon the book by Chaim Potok. Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner, the emotional and intelligent piece carries meaningful religious and famial overtones that will connect with audiences of even the most desperate faiths.
Asher Lev (Karl Miller) is a boy born with a prodigious artistic ability into a Hasidic Jewish family in 1940s Brooklyn. Asher's childhood is filled with conflict as his unique and extraordinary gift clashes with the ways of his devoutly religious sect. Asher’s gift compels him to sketch the truth of the world; truth sometime in sharp contrast with his family’s faith and his community’s Judaism.
Asher’s father (Adam Heller), a pious man devoted to serving his faith, is particulary troubled by his sons talents. In the middle is Asher's anxious mother (Gabra Zackman), who’s mounting agony at the loss of family feeds Asher’s feverish work. Unable to understand his son’s preternatural gift, Asher's father declares it to be from the realm of the demonic. His son’s uncontrollable attraction to copying paintings of nude women and crucifixions of Jesus, especially exasperate and trouble the loving yet baffled father.
Bringing this drawing room drama to life is a small but talented cast of just three threspians. Karl Miller cleverly plays Asher from age six to adulthood, giving the character just enough naivete and angst to understand. Miller deftly manages to hold your attention, without ever reducing to mugging or spotlight stealing. Co-stars Adam Heller and Gabra Zackman carry the lion’s share of the work, creating an entire cast of characters from family members to art world experts. Both effortlessly move from accent to accent as easily as the change costumes.
The conundrum facing Asher Lev may not be a familiar touchstone. As the production reminds us, great Hasidic Jewish artists are rather few and far between. But the play explores the themes of conflicting traditions, father/mother versus child, modern versus traditional, and the religious Jewish world versus secular America. Most, if not all of that, is treaded territory to all of us. Struggling to express your desires in the face of community and parental challenges? That’s a story more than just a few of us are friendly with…Attempting to rationalize spiritual and religious beliefs with modern life? I think many of us have walked that walk too.
The rapture in the Arden’s production is how much the audience can relate. The empathy between the audience and this almost-alien Asher, as well as his family, is palpable. While the dramatic and painful journey on stage might be more tempestuous then our more banal paths travelled, it is stirring to see the Lev family’s tragic odyssey unfold.
My Name Is Asher Lev
Jan. 8 to March 15
40 N. 2nd Street