By Amy J. Barry Special to Living
A young man's conflict between being both true to his art and observing his Hassidic Jewish upbringing is not something with which most of the audience of My Name is Asher Lev at Long Wharf Theatre can directly relate.
And yet the more universal theme of the heartrending struggle between following one's passion and remaining loyal to one's family and community transcends the specifics of the moving Chaim Potok novel, eloquently adapted for stage by Aaron Posner.
Under Gordon Edelstein's understated, tightly focused direction, the drama gently unfolds, taking us on Asher Lev's exhilarating and painful awakening into the wide world outside his orthodox home and deep into his own soul.
The play opens in 1950s Brooklyn in the Lev's apartment, where Asher, the central character and narrator, is a young adult. Ari Brand plays the role with steady conviction, maintaining a sense of wonderment and intensity as he takes us back in time to Asher's childhood, and along the journey that brought him to where he is now.
Asher cannot stop drawing. He explains that his gift-and to his family, his curse-is that he hardly hears the world. He sees everything as how he can draw it.
He dreams of a mythic traveling ancestor, he draws crucifixions and nudes in order to better understand the historical roots of Western art-all while studying Torah, praying, and keeping the Sabbath.
We never see Asher's art, only blank paper and empty easels, a smart production decision as we're not distracted by the actual art that Asher creates, but are focused on his driving need to create.
Mark Nelson earnestly and touchingly plays Asher's father Aryeh, who travels the world building Yeshivas and spreading Orthodox values to fellow Jews. He is baffled and bewildered by his son and tries to convince Asher that he can control his irrational passion for drawing.
"You have a will," he tells him.
Aryeh can't comprehend why Asher draws crucifixions when so many Jews were killed in the name of Jesus.
As unyielding as Aryeh is, his love for his son shines through in the simple parting words he utters, every time he goes abroad: "And drink your orange juice before all the vitamins go out of it."
Asher's mother Rivkeh implores her son to draw pretty pictures of the world, particularly after the sudden death of her brother, which throws her into such a state of grief that as Asher observes, "She no longer lived in our home, she haunted it."
Melissa Miller is up to the challenge of playing the hard-to-read character who sits by the window frozen in fear, waiting for her husband and, later, her son, to return home (as so many of us have experienced), and also mustering the courage to finish the work her brother started, putting into action her yearning to "make things whole."
Asher's world opens wide when he meets the sculptor Jacob Kahn (also played by Nelson-distinctly from his role as Aryeh.)
Jacob challenges Asher on every level. "If you want to make the world holy, stay in Brooklyn," he says. "Art is whether there's a scream in you, waiting to come out."
In the Talmud it is written that as a Jew, Asher is responsible to his people, but Jacob says, "An artist is responsible to no one but his art."
In the end Asher becomes a successful painter, selling many works while remaining an observant Jew.
The beauty in this production is that nothing is black and white. Asher's notoriety comes at a cost to his parents, his community. But as he matures into a young man he also develops tremendous compassion for his parents and expresses it through his art. He painted them, in their Brooklyn apartment, his mother in the window where she spent so much of her life looking out.
In the end, we empathize with both Asher and his parents and are deeply moved by the complexity of a family's love for one another and a gifted artist's unquenchable thirst for self-expression.
My Name is Asher Lev runs through Sunday, May 27 on the Main Stage of Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. For tickets, call 203-787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.