In my book, at least, the West Boca Theatre Company’s current production of My Name Is Asher Lev earns a unique and high compliment: of all the plays I’ve written about in the past 5ish months (my, how time flies), it’s the only one that I left feeling actively inspired to create.
My Name Is Asher Lev also reminded me a bit of all-time favorite The Glass Menagerie in that it’s a memory play chronicling the emotional flight of a young artist from his family, and one that was largely based on the tormented personal experiences of an author, if this time an author once removed.
The script was written in 2009 by Aaron Posner, but is an adaptation of a 1972 novel by Chaim Potok, who, like Asher, spent much of his youth torn between his conservative Hasidic Jewish upbringing and his irresistible artistic drive.
The painting of a “Brooklyn Crucifixion” that figures in My Name Is Asher Lev’s climax was based upon a “Brooklyn Crucifixion” that Potok himself painted; Potok even had some notable success as a visual artist before becoming a New York Times best-selling author, a scholar of Jewish theology, and an ordained conservative Rabbi. Go figure.
The play is narrated by an adult version of protagonist Asher Lev (Spencer Landis), who takes us through the troubled childhood and adolescence that led him to towards such a dark vision. His talent revealed itself early, much to the puzzlement of his family—especially his evangelical father Aryeh (Peter Librach), whose constant travel on missions to create new “yeshivas” (Orthodox Jewish seminaries) around the world is another source of family tension.
His mother Rifkeh (Francine Birns), meanwhile, struggles with depression after the loss of her parents and brother, and then with being constantly caught between Asher’s drive to express himself and her husband’s strong religious convictions. Thus, in “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” it’s her that’s caught between them on the cross, which naturally horrifies Rifkeh and Aryeh alike.
Courtesy of set designer Alan Nash, the stage is memorably covered with provocative empty frames. While the performances from Birns and Librach were strong throughout and Landis’s most emotional moments were truly striking, there were other moments in which he seemed more uncertain.
Thematically, My Name Is Asher Lev touches on quite a few of my personal obsessions: what it means to be an artist, the cost of being an artist, and when (and whether) aesthetics should ever take precedence over morality. According to Joan Didion, after all, writers are “always selling somebody out.”
While I’ve stopped a little short of literally hanging anyone else up on the cross emotionally, I’ve gotten pretty damn close, especially when it comes to self-condemnation, but the inevitable follow up has to come second to telling whatever story needed to be told.
On a more human level, My Name Is Asher Lev is about identity, and the inevitable clashes that arise between parents and children as the latter learn to embrace their true selves. Luckily, Asher isn’t totally alone in his journey towards artistic freedom and self-knowledge; he has the guidance of mentor Jacob Kahn (Craig Dearr), who offers quite a bit of genuinely insightful advice to his protégé.
For instance, that every great artist has left something behind (a family, a nation, a religion…), and had “a scream inside him trying to get out;” that not being true to one’s vision was akin to being a “whore,” and that because it was a true masterpiece, Asher’s “Brooklyn Crucifixion” was worth all the pain it would cause. If you want to experience this moving and thought-provoking production yourself, you have until this February 16.
On a (mostly) unrelated note: Actor’s Rep is putting on its first New Works Nite at the end of this month, a scene from an original play of mine is going to be featured—now, while it’s no “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” things may get a little provocative…