My Name is Asher Lev is a novel about a Hasidic Jew in postwar Brooklyn who grows up to be a well-known painter – and, pulled between his faith and his creativity, tries to reconcile the two with tragic results. It was written in 1972 by Chaim Potok, an American who knew more than a thing or two about being at the intersection of religion and art, being both a rabbi and an author.
In recent years, Potok's story has reached a new generation and returned to an older one through a 2009 stage adaptation by American playwright Aaron Posner that has a flurry of productions in North America. Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Studio 180 are now teaming up for its Toronto premiere.
Just as Potok's novel is told in the first person, Asher Lev (a charming Jonas Chernick) speaks directly to the audience for much of Posner's play, introducing himself in intriguingly contradictory terms as both "an observant Jew" and an "apostate," the man behind an infamous painting known as the Brooklyn Crucifixion.
Thereafter, Asher Lev – no one ever seems to call him by his first or last name alone – settles into a fairly chronological account of his life and development as an artist, sometimes discouraged, sometimes encouraged by his devout parents and their close-knit community. Eventually, with the help of a rebbe (rabbi) more worldly than he lets on, he crosses a bridge into the secular art world under the tutelage of a Jewish abstract expressionist named Jacob Kahn. (Literally crosses a bridge, too – Kahn's office and studio being in Manhattan.)
Ron Lea plays all the other men who figure in the play: Asher Lev's father, a deeply religious man who travels the world helping set up yeshivas; his Uncle Yaakov; the rebbe; and Kahn. For the three Hasidic characters, Lea's portrayals are only shades apart, signalled by changes in glasses, the thicker the frames, the more religious the character, it seems. The actor has more fun playing Kahn – growling and prowling across the stage, making the most of this boisterous, blunt character.
Sarah Orenstein, meanwhile, plays all the women in the play – though the only one with any real depth is Asher Lev's mother, who struggles with the death of her brother, her own intellectual yearnings, and, most movingly, the strangeness of her son's passion.
With its long monologues that occasionally swerve into scenes, My Name is Asher Lev reminded me of the plays of Hannah Moscovitch, a Canadian playwright whose works like East of Berlin and Bunny often give us narrators drowning in guilt, talking to an audience in an effort to justify specific choices they have made in their lives.
But My Name is Asher Lev lacks the dramatic momentum of Moscovitch's plays, however – a feeling of true urgency in the main character's narration only really manifesting itself at the end. Too often, the play's roots as bildungsroman show.
Posner's faithfulness to the original material's form is a funny contrast to the play's subject matter. Asher Lev talks to us about how he sees the world "refracted, pulled apart," but he lives in a script that could not be more conventional in style. The same goes for the realistic set and costume design by Brandon Kleiman, director Joel Greenberg's straightforward production and the cast's solid, but safe, performances.
It's hard to believe that this adaptation is written by same Posner who also turned Anton Chekhov's The Seagull into a playful, fourth-wall-breaking romp called Stupid Fucking Bird (seen last season in Toronto) that was true to its source material in a more daring way.
And yet, any reservations I had about the familiarity of My Name is Asher Lev's form and themes were tempered by seeing the play in a final preview at a weekday matinee – where an older audience who might have read the novel decades ago was complemented by a younger diverse audience from a local high school that included a row of teenage girls in hijabs. Perhaps what is enduring in appeal about Potok's story is that it is about art and religion but doesn't seem to favour one over the other – and perhaps that makes it unconventional in its own way and appeal to audiences that many similar stories don't.
My Name is Asher Lev continues to Nov. 26.