Art And Identity In “My Name is Asher Lev”
The West Boca Theatre Company’s current production of My Name Is Asher Lev earns a unique and high compliment: of all the plays I’ve written about in the past 5ish months (my, how time flies), it’s the only one that I left actively inspired to create.
My Name Is Asher Lev reminds me of my all-time favorite, The Glass Menagerie. It’s a memory play chronicling the emotional flight of a young artist from his family, and one on the basis of an author’s tormented personal experiences, if this time an author once removed.
The script was written in 2009 by Aaron Posner but is an adaptation of a 1972 novel by Chaim Potok. He, like Asher, spent much of his youth torn between his conservative Hasidic Jewish upbringing and his irresistible artistic drive.
The climax of My Name Is Asher Lev reveals a painting named “Brooklyn Crucifixion” by Potok.
Potok even had some notable success as a visual artist before becoming a New York Times best-selling author, a Jewish theology scholar, and an ordained conservative Rabbi. Go figure.
An adult version of protagonist Asher Lev (Spencer Landis) narrates the play. He takes us through the troubled childhood and adolescence that led him to towards such a dark vision. His talent revealed itself early, much to his family’s puzzlement—especially his evangelical father, Aryeh (Peter Librach). Aryeh’s constant travel on missions to create new “yeshivas” (Orthodox Jewish seminaries) worldwide is another source of family tension.
Meanwhile, his mother Rifkeh (Francine Birns) struggles with depression after the loss of her parents and brother and then with being constantly caught between Asher’s drive to express himself and her husband’s strong religious convictions. Thus, in “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” she is caught between them on the cross, which naturally horrifies Rifkeh and Aryeh alike.
Courtesy of set designer Alan Nash, the stage is memorably covered with provocative empty frames. While the performances from Birns and Librach were strong throughout and Landis’s most emotional moments were truly striking, there were other moments in which he seemed more uncertain.
Thematically, My Name Is Asher Lev touches on quite a few of my obsessions: what it means to be an artist, the cost of being an artist, and when (and whether) aesthetics should ever take precedence over morality. According to Joan Didion, after all, writers are “always selling somebody out.”
While I’ve stopped a little short of literally hanging anyone else up on the cross emotionally, I’ve gotten pretty damn close, especially when it comes to self-condemnation. Still, the inevitable follow-up has to come second to telling whatever story is needed.
On a more human level, My Name Is Asher Lev is about identity and the inevitable clashes between parents and children as the latter learn to embrace their true selves. Luckily, Asher isn’t alone in his journey towards artistic freedom and self-knowledge; he has the guidance of mentor Jacob Kahn (Craig Dearr), who offers quite a bit of genuinely insightful advice to his protégé.
For instance, that every great artist has left something behind (a family, a nation, a religion) and had “a scream inside him trying to get out.” That not being true to one’s vision was akin to being a “whore,” and that because it was a true masterpiece, Asher’s “Brooklyn Crucifixion” was worth all the pain it would cause. If you want to experience this moving and thought-provoking production yourself, you have until February 16.
On a (mostly) unrelated note: Actor’s Rep is putting on its first New Works Nite at the end of this month, a scene from an original play of mine is going to be featured—now, while it’s no “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” things may get a little provocative…