Aaron Posner’s stage version of the popular Chaim Potok’s popular novel My Name is Asher Lev, from New Century Theatre Company at 12th Avenue Arts, is a powerful yet distant theatre experience. An old-fashioned type of fairly straight-laced play, it is directed with pace and efficiency by Sheila Daniels, who has also cast a trio of actors easily up to the task. The story is an interesting one, and one full of discovery for those of us who know just a speck about children raised in Hasidic Jewish families.
Asher Lev is a boy with an extraordinary gift for painting, which irritates his stern traditional father, especially when he is painting things that are perceived as controversial or inappropriate to their religious lifestyle. His father, Aryeh, is an emissary for the Rebbe, the leader of the Brooklyn Hasidic community, and travels constantly. When his uncle, his mother Rivkeh’s brother, dies and Asher’s mother becomes mentally ill, it seems as though he has no family left. When his mother shows signs of recovery, and he wants to go back to school the Rebbe allows it. The Rebbe seems to understand Asher better than his own parents, and when his father is relocated to Europe, the Rebbe grants permission for Asher and Rivkeh to remain in the U.S. After training with renowned artist Jacob Kahn, and having successful expositions, Asher’s art fully takes precedence in his mind and life, and he heads off to Paris, further alienating him from his parents and their ways. Though they seem to reconcile on his return, his latest exhibition has themes and elements that provoke and further alienate them. Their visit to it changes all their lives.
In the title role, Connor Neddersen, effortlessly transforms from Asher the boy to Asher the man, and plays out his faith vs. artistic passions conundrum with subtlety and gravity. Amy Thone as his mother (she also plays small roles as a model and an artist friend of Kahn’s) gives a well calibrated performance technically. Her pain in losing her brother is believable, yet there is something just holding her character back from really moving us. Bradford Farwell as Aryeh, as the uncle who dies, as the Rebbe, and as the charismatic, demanding Kahn is totally distinct, honest, and amounts to a wow of a performance. It’s indeed the best work I have seen by an actor onstage this season.
Peter Dylan O’Connor’s set seemed threadbare and somewhat perfunctory, almost unfinished in some ways. The lighting design of the show by Andrew D. Smith had some nice touches, and Melanie Taylor Burgess’ costumes hit the mark. Johanna Melamed’s sound design was subtle yet characterful and helped establish the mood.
My Name is Asher Lev settles when it should soar, and I think it is really a weakness of Posner’s adaptation, not the cast or director. His production of Stupid Fucking Bird at ACT Theatre currently shows him off to better advantage. It is an important story, and made me want to read the novel, which I intend to. But I do recommend it be seen, and it is appropriate for ages 12 and up.
My Name is Asher Lev runs through May 21, 2016 at 12th Ave Arts Mainstage. Tickets ($15-$40) and other information are available at wearenctc.org.