THEATER | MJTC’s “My Name is Asher Lev” weaves a rich and moving tale

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My Name Is Asher Lev, currently being staged by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, is a wonderful example of just how collaborative an art form theater can be. Director Miriam Monasch appears to have worked so closely with her actors and design team that it’s often impossible to figure out where one person’s work ends and the other begins. This fully integrated set of gifts shared among the artists onstage and off makes for a great piece of theater. You think you’ve seen this story before, and then it sneaks up on you in ways that are simple, yet quite powerful and profound.

My Name Is Asher Lev is tackling things that are enormously hard to do well. It’s a play about religion. It’s a play about art. It’s a play about family members who love each other so much it hurts. It’s an adaptation of a classic novel for the stage. Any one or all of these elements could have gone horribly wrong. It could have been simplistic or pretentious or melodramatic or dull. It is none of these things. It is instead, well…beautiful.

my name is asher lev, presented at the hillcrest center theater through november 7. for tickets and information, see mnjewishtheatre.org.

Aaron Posner’s adaptation of the Chaim Potok book of the same name has to take a large share of the credit here. The script is very nimble and surprisingly theatrical (with a sly sense of humor), while still preserving the feel and voice of the book. There is a narrator, Asher Lev (Logan Verdoorn), and the audience sees this story through his eyes. This is a challenge because what, really, does a boy of six to twelve years of age (in act one) understand? It turns out he understands more than his parents (David Coral and Elena Giannetti) are comfortable with, but not enough to be able to stand on his own two feet and live apart from them and their wishes for him. (That’s what act two is for.)

Here is where that sense of collaboration begins. Posner’s adaptation of Potok only works if you have an actor who has the talent to make the monologue portions of the evening fresh and interesting, and a director who can guide that actor to use all the tools at their disposal to help the story come alive with a variety of levels of intensity. The monologues don’t bog the evening down, but rather are interwoven with the scenes around them. It feels like a seamless whole rather than two different types of storytelling. Lucky for Posner he got Verdoorn as Asher Lev, and Monasch in the director’s chair. The more I think about the combination of instinct and painstaking work it must have taken to make Asher’s storytelling work this smoothly, the more I marvel at it.

The story traces how Asher comes of age as both an artist and a young man (I can feel your eyes rolling as you read that, but trust me, you haven’t seen this one before). This is a family of Orthodox Jews, so men are at the top of the power structure, while women and children must learn their place. Asher’s father is sort of a combination Jewish missionary and diplomat. He travels on behalf of his faith, sowing the seeds of new churches and schools around the country and the world. In the years both before and after World War II, when the story is set, this mission had a particular sense of urgency about it. But it isn’t a play about Hitler and the Holocaust. Nor is it a play about how religion stifles people. One of the many fascinating things about Asher is that he takes his religion with him into his life as an artist. Most (bad, boring) plays about art are about how art is a loftier calling than any other sort of life, and how people who don’t understand are somehow just small-minded and holding back someone of genius. Blah, blah, blah. Cue the “nobody understands me” self-pity. Blessedly, My Name Is Asher Lev is about human beings first, and art second, which is as it should be.

My Name Is Asher Lev also handily avoids the old clichés that a boy must somehow reject his father and mother to become his own man, and that art (and the truth it exposes) destroys families. These are smart characters. The notion of holding two conflicting ideas in your head and heart may be complex and troubling, but these are resilient people. More than that, they are bound together by love. It’s not a sentimental, “heart on your sleeve” kind of love but it is strong, nonetheless. As his parents set off on their own mission, Asher goes on a personal journey guided by two new surrogate parents in the art world: an artistic mentor and a gallery owner (played again by Coral and Giannetti).

In act two, with a blessing and a little nudge from the local rabbi (Coral again), Asher connects with these artistic guides and grows into a young man learning to engage with his instincts on the canvas, and not to fear them. Asher is listening to the voice of God speaking to him in a completely different way than God speaks to his parents. But both channels of communication are valid. The rabbi understands this, and wisely sets Asher on his own way without discounting the way he was raised, or the way his parents live their lives. The entire story is a sort of delicate balancing act, and the artists involved in the production balance it beautifully. Coral’s turn as the bombastic artist Yichok is the polar opposite of the imposing figure of Asher’s father, different yet again from Asher’s jovial uncle or the slow-moving but clever rabbi. Giannetti gets a chance to break out in the second act as Anna the art dealer, and again as an artist’s model, but the character who casts the longest shadow across this play (both figuratively, and quite literally) is Asher’s mother Rivkeh.

Often when I’m watching a play that I’m to review afterward, I’ll jot down lines of dialogue that strike me as well done or particularly telling. Looking at my notes, I see I missed one. I appreciated it at the time, but didn’t write it down. As it turns out, it’s the key to Asher’s artistic awakening, and to the whole play. Rivkeh is a woman torn between her roles as a good nurturing mother, and a good and dutiful wife. In the midst of this, she must also deal with the crushing blow of the untimely death of her brother, and his unfinished mission in life which she feels compelled to somehow complete. When Asher pulls on her loyalties one time too many, Rivkeh tries to make him understand by crying out, “You don’t know how hard it is, standing here between you and your father.” In struggling to understand his parents, Asher better understands his own artistic calling. Though he meets other women on his journey, only Asher’s mother can reach out and touch him (physically and emotionally). It sounds simple, but it plays out in delightfully unexpected ways.

The relationship between Asher and his parents is wonderfully portrayed. (More than one person in the audience was dabbing tears at the end. Sometimes there’s nothing more moving than the simple depiction of the difficult but unshakeable love of parents for their child, and a child for his parents.) Asher and his mother and father struggle mightily with one another at times. But it’s a struggle born of need, to reach out and keep connecting with one another, even if they don’t fully understand. Though Asher was the same actor, the same age, the same height through the whole play, the way the parents physically interact with Asher as the six-year-old he begins as and the 18-year-old young man he slowly becomes are fascinating to watch. Verdoorn starts as a little boy looking up with searching eyes and arms reaching up, with Coral and Giannetti looking and reaching down. When his mother embraces Asher toward the end of the play, I found myself thinking, “Wow, he’s really grown up.” Which is silly, but true. Brilliant. And the looks on the actors’ faces in those moments when the characters were, however briefly, speaking the same language, and understanding each other, when their worlds connected, made me smile almost as much as they did. That’s how invested the audience gets in wanting the characters to bridge the divide between them.

The design team, particulary set (Kriby Moore), lights (Paul Epton) and costumes (Wendy Freshman), help the storytelling enormously, but here again it’s clear that Monasch and the actors had to work closely with them to pull it off. The muted color palette of act one is reinforced by the arrangement of a rolling table, a pivoting column and arch, and a few simple chairs. The movements here are restricted to a small area of the stage. There are frequent moments of stillness, silence, and shadow—none of which you fully appreciate until act two, when suddenly the lights are brighter, the colors are just a little more vibrant and varied, and the playing space opens up fully. The second half of the story is about Asher learning to inhabit the larger, louder, brighter spaces of the world outside the walls of his boyhood home. The design, and the use of the design by those on stage, accents those messages. The foundation laid in the shadow work in act one with Epton’s lighting pays off in a big way at Asher’s climactic exhibit near the end of the play (the audience around me actually gasped). Oddly, it’s a play about art in which we never see the art itself. But the audience’s imagination is so fully engaged and that whatever we see in our minds, painted by the performers’ words, is much more powerful than any prop could have been.

My Name Is Asher Lev is, in many ways, a quiet little piece of theater. But theater doesn’t always have to jump around and make a lot of noise to make a point. In fact, the more I think about this production and the deeper I dig, the more I find I like it. Theater that keeps you thinking and draws you in further is a rare thing. It’s quite lovely, and very highly recommended.

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