My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner based on the novel by Chaim Potok. Directed by Aaron Posner.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"My gift. . .carries with it the power to hurt and the power to heal."
In telling his own story a man cannot be completely objective, no matter how hard he tries. An artist painting a revelatory picture knows that there are things not shown, emotions not expressed; even a "Guernica" leaves out something. For Asher Lev, an observant Jew, an artist, a son of his Hassidic community, truth is at war with desire and is constantly eating away at his heart. He has a gift. A gift that compels him to draw and which draws him away from study, from tradition, from the life his family would have him lead, is a dangerous thing. He want to control it but it is in control of him.
In a wrenching, heart-breaking play, "My Name is Asher Lev," the son grows into his own man and the man betrays the child of his parents. In order to nurture the gift that he has lived with from the age of five the child-man, wiser than his parents, learns that betrayal is inevitable and that his own life is what he risks when he becomes a man. In the Jewish tradition a Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen is the graduation of the child into that manhood and so it is with Asher Lev. His personal journey through that transition is what Barrington Stage Company is presenting at its Stage Two space in Pittsfield, MA and audiences, if they’re like the one I spent the evening with, are being moved to tears, sobs wracking their souls and bodies as they bear witness to this artistic Bar Mitzvah.
Directed by the author Aaron Posner in the simplest of story-telling terms, this play is graced with the talents of three marvelous actors: Adam Green plays Asher, Daniel Cantor plays all of the other men in the story and Renata Friedman plays all of the women. Cantor is Aryeh Lev, Asher’s father, a man opposed to his son’s talents and abilities, a man who is humiliated by the concept of a son who is different. In this role Cantor is almost lyrically severe as his temper flares, as his temper cools, as his temper remains anything but indifferent.
As his own brother Yitzchok Cantor takes on a marvelously Al Jolsonesque manner playing a man whose sense of humor is tickled by a simple portrait of himself drawn by his nephew. As The Rebbe, he shows a side of wisdom that is unexpected and oddly heart-warming, but it is as the complete opposite of Aryeh, Jacob Kahn - an artist and a rebel - that Cantor truly shines. Kahn is old and as the play progresses grows older before our eyes. His strength in wisdom and capability is brilliantly shown through Cantor’s interpretation.
Friedman is lovely and lyrical as Rachel, a young model whose nude posing is a problem for Asher Lev. This brief scene is a sharp and drastic change for the actress who spends most of the play as Rivkah Lev, Asher’s mother. She also plays Anna Schaeffer, an art dealer whose gallery sponsors Asher. Anna is sharp, sophisticated and a dynamic beauty in Friedman’s hands, another, more motherly contrast to Rivkah. Rivkah; haunted, human, warm and strict, loving, torn between her two men, husband and son, tormented by her losses, overcome and overwhelmed by the peculiarities of her position between them. Friedman uses all of these qualities and presents a woman so real she is painful to watch and to listen to at times. The depths to which she takes her character are so far-removed from the Brooklyn of her reality that she almost encourages you to take her in your arms and protect her from herself. A lovely and lyrical performance.
Green as Asher Lev makes a mitzvah, a miracle, a blessing out of his role. He plays the boy of five, the boy of six, the boy of ten and thirteen, the man of that same age and the older man who must narrate his own story because only he can tell it. He plays a compulsive individual living in a world of conformity and regularity, a world of old eastern European values that cannot be considered modern or American. His "observant" Jew is being strangled by that need to conform when every fiber of his being is rebellious and so very strong he must be in pain without an outlet. Green, with a sweet face and a charming voice, makes off this clear without being obvious about it, without torturing his audience with his character’s own ritual madness. In a not very subtle role, Green is subtle in his changes and his growth. He is most convincing when he isn’t about convincing, but merely conveying information.
Posner keeps this show going at a remarkable pace. While Asher’s growth into manhood is slow and gradual the play keeps us involved by moving us quickly and definitively into the next stage of his development. With the fairly quick-change characterizations of Friedman and Cantor, the play never has a dull moment and never moves too quickly for the audience to feel they have missed anything. He maintains that balance nicely in the writing and the staging and he has some help form his lighting designer, John Hoey, who uses the window structures of the set to keep things moving from place to place. One of Hoey’s most illustrative moments is his lighting of Rivkah Lev as she sits huddled in the living room window ignoring everything around her. Designer and actress and director have created a haunting image there.
Daniel Conway’s set is ideal for this design concept show, a single set that manages to be just right for every setting and the costumes by Olivera Gajic are excellent, helping to evolve characters perfectly.
"My Name is Asher Lev" is one of those incredible theatrical events that will never leave you. Ethel Merman in the final moments of "Gypsy" and Zero Mostel’s inhuman transition in "Rhinoceros" and Angela Lansbury with her "Mame" trumpet entrance, Don Quixote’s death scene in Richard Kiley’s hands, and Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier standing off against one another on moral and religious issues in "Becket ," along with Gwen Verdon in her mini-dress in "Sweet Charity" all hunched over with the pain of love deserted in the park - these are theatrical moments that live forever in my memory - among others. Asher Lev’s 90 minute confessional joins those other moments tonight.
Daniel Cantor and Adam Green; photo: Kevin Sprague
Renata Friedman as Rivkah; photo: Kevin Sprague
Adam Green as Asher; photo: Kevin Sprague
My Name is Asher Lev plays through September 11 at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage Two at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For information and tickets (get yours soon) call the box office at 413-236-8888.