My name is Asher Lev: Formidable Work on an Age Old Story

My Name is Asher Lev. Ellen David. David Reale. Alex Poch-Goldin. Photo Andree Lanthier. My Name is Asher Lev. Ellen David. David Reale. Alex Poch-Goldin. Photo Andree Lanthier.

Based on an adaptation of a 1970s work of the similar name by Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev is a formidable work, extremely well done, a play about youth, a child prodigy, cultural and religious entanglements and the age old turmoil of family vs. self.

Told through the narrative eyes of the young Jewish boy Asher (a formidable performance by David Reale), the story starts when he is a little boy who begins to demonstrate great talent for drawing. Born in an orthodox Jewish family meant that his preoccupations should have been directed to learning religious texts, spreading the word of his faith and pretty much following in the footsteps of his father.

The play sets itself up on expected lines: we know what’s going to happen. We can pretty much expect the chaos and personal trauma that this child prodigy’s gift will bring to the family that is rooted in the Jewish tradition. We know that Asher is not going to conform and will bring him in direct conflict with his father, which tragically leaves the mother acting as buffer between a son she loves and a husband she is devoted to.

My Name is Asher Lev. David Reale. Alex Poch-Goldin. Photo Andree Lanthier.

My Name is Asher Lev. David Reale. Alex Poch-Goldin. Photo Andree Lanthier.

However, the play is not about this basic premise. It’s not about the expected trajectory of the story. The play is essentially of the slow, sometimes dramatic progression of this boy’s journey to his artistic destiny, as he slowly, most unconsciously distances himself from his father and the way of the family. It focuses on Asher’s tryst with pain, as he finds it impossible to reconcile his artistic soul and his familial values. It’s that pain and the non-acceptance of those around us, for they know no other.

The writing is rich with small sub-plots like the death of Asher’s uncle, his mother’s brother, that prompts her to take on her brother’s unfinished tasks: specializing in Russian foreign policy. It seemed like some minor attempts at alluding to a discussion about women’s rights! The father’s continual work to further the Jewish cause and help out his brethren, no matter where they are in the world, is fascinating to watch. As slow acceptance of Asher’s genius descends, there are discussions around what Asher should draw and what not. His father requires him not to engage in drawing naked women, but under counsel from his art teacher, the eccentric and renowned community artist Jakub Kann, Asher fights back, for his learning cannot be confined to religious morality.

The most poignant moment for me, which seemed quite understated, was when interested in his own evolution of discovering his voice as an artist, Asher realizes that he is not very different from his father. They both are out to share their view of the world and bring some comfort to strangers, who are only connected to them by their humanity (and to his father by faith).

Asher’s artistic expressions and journey to a celebrated young adult artist is poetic and expressively portrayed. The torment of his learning with Jakub is rushed (but I understand the artistic choices of a 90 minute runtime). There wasn’t a dull moment and all my kudos to David Reale for a captivating performance. Also, credit to playwright Aaron Posner on detail (I claim no expertise in traditional and religious Jewish vocabulary) and director Steven Schipper. The light department was effectively managed and the minimalist set design complimented the action and just overall a great production.

David Reale commands the stage with his close to flawless performance as Asher, while actors playing his parents do a fantastic job switching between the various roles. Ellen Davis plays the mother, gentle, firm and yet very malleable to her family’s needs. She also plays the muse to Asher, as he first discovers a nude female form and then the gallery owner, who is both an admirer and a businesswoman who revels in Asher’s talents. Alex Poch-Goldin, while centrally playing Asher’s father, also plays the head Rabbi, his uncle, the celebrated artist Kann, shines through these contradictory personas.

The progression to the moment of conflict, that enjoys some build up, doesn’t end dramatically. There are no broken windows, no paintings vandalized. However, I was left with a deeply somber feeling of how our ingrained values turn slave-masters and make meek spectators of us.
Playing at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine, Montreal, Québec, H3W 1M7 till October 2, 2016. Click here for tickets