One may be born with a gift, but one must be made an artist.
Currently onstage at Live Theatre Workshop is Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev, a stirring story of a man who demonstrates a gift for drawing at a young age and the path he took to claim that gift as an artist. Potak's play is dense with passion about art and the struggle of those that have an uncompromising need to develop and exercise their artistic gifts. Asher Lev finds himself at odds with his family, who doesn't understand their gifted son's passion, particularly when to them, it seems at odds with their religious beliefs and traditions.
In Potok's play, Asher (Steve Wood) narrates his own story, from the time he was a boy knowing only that he loved to draw, unaware that his love could be anything but part of who he was. His immigrant parents, members of a Hasidic sect of Judaism, live in Brooklyn, and although they recognize that their son does have a gift, are dismissive, thinking its pursuit would distract their son from more honorable and important work. But after Asher demonstrates an unwavering desire to practice what he loves, he tells us they consulted with their religious leaders who encouraged them to allow him to study with a Jewish artist, making him commit to five years of work with this instructor. During that time, he would either be able to embrace his life as an artist, or find that he didn't have the drive—or skills—to follow that path.
This play is an adaptation by Aaron Posner of Potok's novel of the same name, which was a 1972 bestseller. One can easily identify that the play is an adaptation, and although it is effective in its storytelling, it shows the pitfalls of such a translation. For one thing, it seriously challenges actors. In a novel, a story can be told over time, allowing nuances and details to unfold. Onstage, however, economy is necessity, and instead of seeing a story's details, we are told about them. Asher's extensive narration is sometimes interrupted by brief scenes of his family's exchanges, his conversations with the Rebbe, the leader of his Hasidic sect, and his studies with artist Jacob Kahn. The play's cast consists of only three: Wood, who's onstage almost every minute, and Art Almquist and Carrie Hill, who play multiple characters, including Asher's parents. This could spell doom in hands of weak actors. Fortunately, director Amy Almquist's cast is strong and meets quite effectively the challenges of staging Potok's story.
In the first few minutes there is a bit of unevenness as Wood addresses us as an adult while showing us his life as a child. Since the convention of how this story is to be told is not really established yet, it's a bit confusing. Is he a child or a childish adult? But Wood steers us into a clearer idea of how the story is to be told, and we get it and follow along.
Wood must also woo the audience, charm them even, because if Asher were not a likeable, honorable guy who is sincerely trying to do the right thing, the story onstage would fail miserably. But Wood has created a very likeable character with integrity and a good heart. We sympathize with his struggle to please his parents, to be a good Jew, to find who he is as a man and an artist.
Almquist and Hill have their difficult duties as well. Between them they play seven characters. They are required to create–in a moment–identifiable and distinct people. It's challenging work but, thankfully, these two actors manage it well.
Probably the most interesting and involving scenes are the ones in which Asher and Jacob dissect, discuss and debate the subject of art and artists, and this is where the real substance of the play lies. Jacob constantly challenges Asher, from the very tame distinction between "naked" and "nude"; to the courage it takes to reveal one's truth in a painting; to risk offending by challenging what is considered normal; and being willing to take responsibility for "the great pain you are going to cause." And Asher does cause pain, to his parents as they confront Asher's paintings at a prestigious gallery's exhibition opening. Art, Asher learns, has the power to hurt and to heal.
Art is also an expression of one's identity as well as a means of creating that identity. These reciprocating qualities are a part of what makes art so vital not only for an individual, but for a culture.
The set, lights and sound help support the story in an unobtrusive way, and that's exactly how it should be. Costume-wise, it was probably not the best choice to put poor Wood in a sweater; he works way too hard for that to be comfortable.
Although translating Potok's story from a novel to a play presents a number of challenges, LTW's production handles them well. It's a rich story, which this production team delivers powerfully