By Richard Ades
The protagonist of My Name Is Asher Lev is still a boy when he begins drawing pictures of Jesus and nude women. Not surprisingly, the images upset his Hasidic Jewish parents.
“No Torah Jew would think of drawing such things,” thunders his father, Aryeh Lev (Ralph Scott).
But the parents soon learn that trying to stifle the youth’s artistic impulses is no easy task. Though he wants to be a good son and a good Jew, Asher himself (Isaac Nippert) seems unable to control his need for self-expression. The result is a recurring argument with his devout father and a source of stress for his mother, Rivkeh (Melissa Graves), who tries to be loyal to both her husband and her gifted son.
Adapted from a novel by Chaim Potok, Aaron Posner’s one-act is set in a particular time and place: a Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn in the 1950s. The basic situation, however, is universal: The parents want their child to obey them and respect their traditions, while the child is driven by his need to find his own way.
Though the play sometimes seems like a collection of biographical scenes rather than a cohesive drama, the unifying factor is Asher’s fierce need to create art. Nippert expresses that need with a portrayal that incorporates joyful discovery and youthful enthusiasm—and, sometimes, youthful petulance. All the while, he succeeds in suggesting ages as young as 5 without turning into a childish caricature.
As Asher’s mother, Graves projects quiet dignity and equally quiet desperation. Because we see Rivkeh through her son’s eyes, she comes off as more of a symbol of long-suffering motherhood than a flesh-and-blood woman, but Graves fills the need by radiating an aura of profound sadness.
Graves also doubles as a couple of relatively minor female characters, but it’s Scott who does the heavy lifting in terms of multiple roles. In addition to Asher’s father, he plays a supportive uncle, a local Hasidic leader and, most notably, Jacob Kahn, a secular Jewish artist who becomes Asher’s mentor. Though some of the portrayals carry a whiff of stereotype, Kahn comes across as distinctive and fully human.
Under Kahn’s exacting tutelage, Asher is encouraged to remain true to his Hasidic identity while studying the European and largely Christian traditions that shaped Western art. The resulting tension leads to a climax that supplies the drama—melodrama, even—that much of the play lacks.
Steven C. Anderson’s sensitive direction makes the most of the work’s strengths, including its portrait of a youth torn between his art and his devotion to his family and faith. Jarod Wilson’s lighting design brings out every nuance of that portrait, while well-chosen background music adds both drama and ethnic flavor. Eric Barker’s painterly scenic design includes a floor divided into multiple, odd-shaped levels and distorted windows that play a symbolic role in later scenes.
The sum total of all this effort is a nearly perfect staging of an interesting, if not-quite-perfect, work of theater.
CATCO and Gallery Players will present My Name Is Asher Lev through Nov. 9 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.