Self-Fulfillment in a Hostile World

My long-term obsession with My Name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok’s powerful novel about an artist prodigy in post-World War II Hasidic Brooklyn whose talent puts him at odds with his family and community – meant that my excitement knew no bounds when I discovered that Aaron Posner’s play adaptation, directed by Gordon Edelstein, was coming to the Westside Theater in NYC.

The play took over the upstairs half of the Westside Theater, the lower half occupied by Old Jews Telling Jokes. The theater’s small size created an intimate setting for what would be an emotionally intense experience. Seating was limited to front and rear orchestra, with no mezzanine.  The staff ensured that everyone would have a positive theater experience, and ushers offered to move me to an empty seat in the front row as the play was about to start, which I gladly accepted.

This adaptation focused on simplicity, with a minimal interior set designed to be a living room and used as all the other spaces in the story. Three actors covered all the roles – Ari Brand as Asher Lev, and Mark Nelson and Jenny Bacon as his parents and everyone else – and transitioned between characters in the shadows on the side of the stage, donning coats, hats, wigs, and emphasizing their flexibility as actors. Mark Nelson was particularly impressive in his change from Asher’s rigid, religious father to the elderly, kind Rebbe, and to Jacob Kahn, Asher’s abrasive painting mentor who hopes to sculpt the boy into an accomplished artist. This arrangement only becomes problematic when Nelson’s tzitzit from his role as the religious father peek out from under his cardigan while he is in the role of the secular Kahn. (Interesting note about the casting:  Na’ama Potok, Chaim Potok’s daughter, acts as the female understudy.)

Asher Lev narrates the play as it moves from his childhood to his teenage years to its climax in his twenties. As a young boy, he discovers his talent for drawing, which, in his teenage years, creates a strong divide between him and his father, whose life is dedicated to “bringing the Ribbono Shel Olam into the world.”

The tension between all three family members unfolds further through his mother’s palpable worries every time her husband leaves on another trip for the Rebbe. She stands at the windows at the back of the stage, her hand resting gently on the pane, her entire being focused on her husband’s retreating back. She assumes the same pose while she awaits his return, an image that haunts Asher. When Asher arrives home two hours late one day because he was distracted by something he wanted to draw, his mother is waiting at the window in the same pose. She hugs him in relief, then soundly berates him, demanding, “Why would you make me wait?”

It is a crucial moment in his emotional and artistic development, a moment he returns to when he finally creates the famous “Brooklyn Crucifixion” paintings in his twenties, which depicts his mother on a cross, the cross bars of the window at which she always used to wait, torn between her husband and her son. Asher knows that releasing these paintings will hurt the people he loves and cut him off from his religious parents and his community, but he feels that hiding them would cause his life to be a lie, and, as he says, “I could not be a whore to my existence.”

Asher Lev’s final rupture from his parents and community occurs at the moment that his parents see his “Brooklyn Crucifixion” paintings at the gallery opening and leave, horrified and disappointed. While all the characters of the play are technically present, in this adaptation’s arrangement only the parents are portrayed, effectively focusing the audience’s attention on their slow progression through a gallery we cannot see until they finally stand to look at the two fateful paintings, placed somewhere above the audience’s heads. The light shines strongly down on their faces as realization dawns on them and the tears slowly appear in their eyes.

Before the play ends, Asher Lev, finally confident in himself, addresses a final monologue to the audience, asserting his identity as the son of Aryeh and Rivkah, as an observant Jew, and as an artist: as someone with a gift that has the power to hurt and the power to heal. “My name is Asher Lev,” he declares to us loudly, defiantly. And as he leaves his house for the final time, it is his father who stands at the window, his hand on its pane in the all too familiar pose.

While the novel encourages its readers to be mostly sympathetic to Asher Lev, the play emphasizes his parents’ pain, particularly his mother’s struggles to do the right thing for both her husband and her son as she finds herself caught in the middle each time, unable to appease either. The agony she endures in waiting for her family to return home each time is enough to drive the audience to tears, resonating with anyone who has ever had to wait for a loved one. At the end of the play, she is the character to whom I ended up being most sympathetic.

The emotional intensity and the powerful themes of this play create an unforgettable theater experience that leaves its audience members thinking about their own lives – their aspirations, their loyalties, and the effects of their choices. My Name is Asher Lev is a play of questions. Was what Asher Lev did right? What would we have done? What do we do when faced with similar dilemmas? These are not easy questions, but they are important ones in our quest for truth.