Some speak to God through prayer and study. Others connect through their art. In an adaptation of the popular 1972 novel “My Name Is Asher Lev” for the stage, this conflict of sacred prayer and sacred creativity and the pull between the two keeps father and son, mother and child, community and individual societal norms in at odds. The production runs at 1st Stage in Tysons through Dec. 17.
Local playwright Aaron Posner telescoped Chaim Potok’s range-y novel of the same name into a taut 90-minute one act in 2009, a decade after he did the same for “The Chosen,” another Potok work that draws back the curtain on the insular mid-20th-century chasidic lifestyle in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Director Nick Olcott takes audiences into the Halacha-driven Lev household, where expectations for young Asher run high to continue his father’s rabbinic path. But Asher has a gift. His drawings and paintings puzzle his parents — father, Aryeh, who travels frequently on Jewish missions to Eastern Europe and the then-Soviet Union and mother Rivkah, who encourages but doesn’t understand her young son’s talent.
When Potok penned “Asher Lev” in 1972, the Holocaust was an ever-present shadow hovering over American Jews, especially the ultra-religious remnant communities from Eastern Europe. The novelist was among the first to paint a clear-eyed picture of this little-known and understood community, which follows stringencies and maintains dress customs from 18th-century Poland. And Potok’s novels, among them “The Chosen,” posited that the Jews, even the tightly knit Chasidim overcame the trauma and decimation of the Holocaust to re-create their communities under the auspices of America’s tenets of religious freedom. The subtext: not giving Hitler a posthumous victory, an idea posited by philosopher and Reform Rabbi Emil Fackenheim.
There’s little sentiment, though, in Posner’s script and Olcott’s production, which narrows the mostly first-person narrative, the characters and young Lev’s evolution from a naïve chasidic yeshiva boy into a world-acclaimed painter, prized for the complexity of his subjects and for his rendering of crucifixions.
Along the way, Lev has had to leave behind the prohibitions in Jewish law that would restrict his artistry, while remaining true to many of the commandments and customs he was raised to follow. It began with painting subjects other than pretty nature scenes. His mentor, Jacob Kahn, a blunt, elderly painter, is corralled to tutor his subject on the ways of the art world, among them figure drawings of nudes and a study of the importance of crucifixion paintings in Western art.
Painting is as necessary for life as breathing is, Asher says, fervently appealing to his father. Posner’s script takes the audience back into Asher’s childhood, demonstrating the importance of his upbringing in making him the artistic force he has become. The problem is that this device requires an adult actor to inhabit the body and spirit of a child, and here Lucas Beck doesn’t succeed in making young Asher both believable and interesting.
Playing his Asher’s mother, Rivka, Hyla Matthews is underwhelming; when she hits a deep depressive episode that shifts the family dynamic, she, too, is less than believable. Her taut cheekbones and angular build, though, have been used well in framing her like a Modigliani in the living room window. It’s a telling gestural touch: a woman of that sect and that era homebound, by tradition and societal constraints. But she doesn’t provide the heartbreak of deep loneliness that the novel suggests.
Andy Brownstein provides the stern presence that patriarch Aryeh Lev demands, and his Jewish New York accent is most believable (although this note is coming from a non-native New Yorker). Playwright Posner scripted the work for three actors, so Brownstein, too, takes on the role of the Rebbe, the community’s religious leader, who doesn’t only guide the spirit, but all familial and communal decisions.
As the Rebbe, Brownstein allows for a depth of understanding of this soulful temperament, and as Asher’s uncle, Yaakov, he relishes jovial worldliness.
But as Asher’s mentor, the secular painter Jacob Kahn, Brownstein excels, providing a rich snapshot of an artistic force who is driven to pass along his hard-fought knowledge and skill to survive and thrive in the art world. A scene where Asher narrates the aphorisms Kahn peppers his talented student with becomes a user’s manual for all artists, and it suggests that novelist Potok fought hard to find a comfortable center between a religious life and an artistic one, both of which require discipline, a bit of asceticism and lifelong commitment.
“My Name Is Asher Lev” on stage, too, wrestles with the father-son dynamic, but here, both actors are far too amiable to incorporate enough discord — restrained or overblown — into what should be an elemental conflict within the play. Father-love and filial-rebellion have long been fundamental tropes in Jewish texts, dating back to Abraham and Isaac. But here, while there is divergence, Potok was aiming for a clash of cultures and in the book that rift is cataclysmic. In 1st Stage’s rendering and retelling of this tale, it feels like a mere quarrel.
“My Name Is Asher Lev,” through Dec. 17, 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rod, Tysons. Tickets $15-$33. Call 703-854-1856 or visit 1ststagetysons.org.