The novel by Chaim Potok deals with a question of Jewish philosophy and would seem to be a subject better suited to prose than to the theatre. Aaron Posner’s adaptation, heavy with explanations and literary language, tries to clarify the conflict within the young Asher Lev . There is the religious tradition in which he was raised: Hasidic Judaism, an ultra-orthodox form of Judaism which is also linked to the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah and fundamental belief in the laws as set out in the Torah. He however, wants to live in the world of the imagination: he wants to be an artist.
One of the characters in the play is the Rebbe from Brooklyn, the famous mystical leader of the Hasidim, the spiritual guide and ultimate reference in questions of daily life and religious tradition. He appears in moments of crisis and is constantly consulted by Asher when the young man can’t find the answers to his dilemma. These life choices, the relation between expression that comes from the creative impulse, and the expression of a rigidly defined life according to the teachings of the Torah which aim at spiritual perfection, constitute the conflict in this play. Like all true artists, Asher is driven to art. He can’t stop drawing and painting and sketching to the point where he rejects his duties as the son of a holy man. His father is horrified and the gulf between him and his son grows deeper every year while Asher’s mother is torn between her duty to her husband and her love of her son.
Asher’s career as a painter is given an important boost when he goes to live with a famous painter in Manhattan who has agreed to become his mentor. That means disregarding the daily religious practices and radically changing his way of seeing the world. As Jacob Kahn, this non-practicing Jewish artist says, with a twinkle in his eye, it means moving into the world of the Christians because he will find that art becomes his real religion, and he will be living among images of the Christian world that dominates the history of European painting. Working with this mentor, Asher’s talent blossoms. The final outrage to his family is the important exhibition which takes place in New York and where his parents discover with horror, that their son has depicted the mother’s suffering, torn between her son’s life and her husband’s repudiation of it, as an image taken from the crucifixion. In a final cry of faith, Asher tells us that rather than blaspheming or belittling either side, he has united the divine world and the imperfect world with his work, thus he has created a new self that symbolised something new. An perfect example of postmodernism!
Directed by Bronwyn Steinberg, some of the elements of the staging were very good. The depiction of the living painting at the end, Sean Green’s lighting effects that brought out the shadows and the light were done with a certain amount of sensitivity although the material possibilities of the Arts Court Stage are not particularly good and hindered his work. It was also obvious that the acoustics in that theatre leave much to be desired. When David Whiteley spoke loudly, and especially when he had his back to the audience, which happened frequently because we were sitting on two sides of the acting area, his voice became garbled and we lost a lot of his text. On the whole, Whiteley was the most confident presence on stage and he created a very angry if not slightly stiff, father. He also played all the other male characters except his son. Drew Moore as Asher, and Sarah Gabriella Waisvisz as the mother, made heroic efforts to rise to the height of their characters but perhaps lacked the experience necessary for this form of larger than life performance that needed voices and attitudes that grasped the near epic style of the piece.
The discussion about faith and artistic expression was extremely interesting , clearly developed in the text and held my attention most of the time but if at times it felt a bit repetitive, it was no doubt due to the lack of development that we should have felt in each of those characters. As the mother goes mad, torn between her husband and her son, the young man gains more confidence but we got absolutely no sense of these emotional heights that were vital to the performance to avoid slipping into monotonous tones that at times sounded more like an exchange between students in a religious school.
Nevertheless, the discussion was fascinating, the public applauded very loudly on opening night, and most of all, it was the best publicity for Chaim Potok’s book!
My Name is Asher Lev plays from August 15 to 25, 2012, In Arts Court.