Potok’s Asher Lev takes the stage

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Fans of the late Jewish author Chaim Potok will be turning out in drovesfor the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company‘s production of Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, according to MJTC Artistic Director Barbara Brooks.


“Usually, we see tickets sold in pairs or blocks of four,” she said, “but for this show, we are seeing a high number of blocks for six or more tickets.”


Judging from the play’s reviews from other cities, the Twin Cities audience is in for a treat.


My Name is Asher Lev was adapted for the stage by Posner, who did the adaptation of Potok’s The Chosen, seen at MJTC in 2000. Brooks chose Asher Lev for the 2010-2011 season because of its relevant contemporary themes that show a sensitive portrait of a young man at the crossroads of heritage, culture and identity. It doesn’t hurt that the original book has a wide following, either.


The story, told in flashbacks, focuses on the child Asher Lev (Logan Verdoorn) from a highly Orthodox Jewish background as he evolves into his own distinctive religious and artistic manhood.


The current show is directed by Miriam Monash, well known to Twin Cities audiences for her many acting performances. She was seen most recently at MJTC in Women’s Minyan.Monash’s personal knowledge as a Jew came in handy since a majority of the actors in a play with many Hasidic characters are not Jewish.


David Coral plays Asher’s father and Asher’s secular mentor Jacob Kahn (he performed in The Chosen at MJTC, as well). This role is a stretch for the seasoned actor.


“These roles are different from those I’ve done before with MJTC,” Coral said. “My other characters have been liberals. Asher’s father is on the other side of the coin.”


Still, as an Italian-American originally from the Boston area, Coral finds many cultural similarities between his personal experience and what he’s found in his Jewish characters onstage.


“It doesn’t hurt that as a student at Northwestern University, I was a member of ZBT fraternity,” he said. “I spent my share of High Holidays at services with my frat brothers and sharing meals with their families.”


Asher’s mother is played by Elena Giannetti (the second Italian-American in this production), also no stranger to MJTC; this is her fourth production at the St. Paul theater. She also appeared in the Minnesota History Theater’s Holocaust story, Hiding in the Open, which was based on Dr. Sabina Zimering’s memoir.


Giannetti finds it easy to identify with her character. As the mother of a nine-year-old boy, both she and Asher’s mother are looking to find “a way to encourage an artistic talent and interest” in their sons. Her research on family life in Hasidic homes, done largely over the Internet, led her to gain tremendous respect for the role of the Orthodox woman.


“My character can stand up to her husband,” she proclaimed proudly.


As for Verdoorn, he finds many similarities between his own life and that of his character, Asher Lev.


“I come from a military family and my mother home-schooled me,” he said. “I was 12 years old – the same age as Asher Lev at the beginning of the book – when she chose My Name is Asher Lev as one of my reading assignments. Now I’m in my early 20s, the same age as my character in the play. I reread the book when I was cast for this role and I got a whole new view of it.”


Verdoorn is a drama student at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. After being cast as the child of Hasidic Jews in this play, he returned to New York briefly and traveled across the East River into the Hasidic neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to get a firsthand feel for the community where his character lives.


What Verdoorn learned from reading Potok’s book, exploring Crown Heights and performing in this play is something that hearkens back to artistic director Brooks’ understanding of the play’s universal themes. She said of Asher Lev’s family: “Before they’re Hasidic Jews, they’re people.”


This is a lesson that she hopes all who see the play will carry with them after the curtain falls.


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My Name is Asher Lev will run Oct. 16 through Nov. 7 at MJTC’s theater home, Hillcrest Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. For ticket reservations, call 651-647-4315 or e-mail info@mnjewishtheatre.org. For information, visit: www.mnjewishtheatre.org.