Monday, May 14, 2012

Theater Review: My Name is Asher Lev -- Long Wharf


Ari Brand, Melissa Miller and Mark Nelson. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Conflict Between Family, Art Paints Gripping Personal Portrait
By Lauren Yarger
The sparsely furnished Brooklyn apartment (Eugene Lee designs it) is devoid of color, its most distinguishing feature a large window that looks out on the world. It forms a prison of sorts for the son of a devout Jewish family whose religion and traditions make it impossible for him to embrace the burst of color that is the artistic gift within him. 
Such is the conflict of My Name is Asher Lev, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok, and closing out the season at Long Wharf Theatre. The artist’s story is told in narrative form by Asher (Ari Brand), who recalls his need to express life through his art as early as the age of 6. Asher's mysterious gift is discouraged by his father, Ari (Mark Nelson), a leader in their 1950s Hassidic Crown Heights community, who travels on important work for the rebbe (the group’s spiritual leader), and by his mother, Riv (Melissa Miller).  
His father thinks drawing is a waste of time. Isn’t it more important to study the Torah and Talmud? He tells his son to fight his urge to draw. His mother urges Asher to respect his father – and to draw pretty things instead of offensive images like nudes and crucifixions. 
“It’s not a pretty world,” Asher says. “I won’t paint it that way.” 
The boy can’t smother the artistic flame that burns within him, even after it is doused by the death of his uncle and his mother’s subsequent depression. It rekindles and he becomes the pupil of another great Jewish artist  who recognizes the genius in Asher’s gift and sets out to his own masterpiece: “a living, breathing David." 
Nelson and Miller play multiple people in Asher’s life and make seamless transitions between distinctly crafted characters under Gordon Edelstein’s skillful direction (Posner’s script also very clearly maps out what is taking place and who’s who). Original music and sound design by John Gromada underscores the tone and excellent lighting design by Chris Akerlind highlights the conflict and Asher’s isolation. 
The 90-minute production is moving, heart wrenching and well played. The conflict isn't restricted to one religion, or one calling that must be answered. It is something which touches the lives of every person who has striggled to find his or her true self. Don’t miss it at Long Wharf’s Mainstage where it runs through May 27.

Tickets are $40-$70. For a complete performance schedule, visit www.longwharf.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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