Ever since I was “forced” to read The Chosen in a high school English class, Chaim Potok has been one of my favorite authors. An orthodox Jew and rabbi as well as an author, most of Potok’s books are set in the Jewish world of New York. ”My Name is Asher Lev ”is no exception, set among a Hasidic sect in Brooklyn, where a young boy with an incrediable gift as an artist finds himself negotiating the conflicting, sometimes tearing demands of art, faith and family. This book has become one of my favorites. Potok, with painful and beautiful honesty explores the tensions of being faithful in art, always creating with integrity and honesty, while being devout and faithful in following God within one’s faith community––a tension familiar to Evangelical Christian artists as well as Orthodox Jews.
It is always both exciting and a bit scary to see a story you love presented in a different medium. There is the fear that it will somehow be spoiled, be dishonest to the original work in the re-telling and, as much as I love the book, I had trouble even beginning to picture it in play form. What I saw was not only true to the spirit of the story, but it was a strikingly beautiful example of the spareness and ingenuity of the theatrical form.
Playrwright Aaron Posner masterfully represents the crucial elements of the story, parring them down to a simple but poignant narrative. The play uses only three actors, but they represent eight different characters. The audience is thus forced to use their imagination in a willing suspension of disbelief to make the different characterizations real–– this draws the audience deeply into the world of the play. The audience participates in the story and thus becomes part of the play. The same thing is done with the central theme of art: every scrap of paper is blank, which leaves it up to each observer to create the lines and colours, the strokes and smudges which cause so much pain, joy, and pleasure throughout the play.
“My Name is Asher Lev” is theatre at its best: raw, authentic, and imaginative. You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate the themes of tradition, family, vocation, and belonging which are woven through the simple narrative. Pacific Theatre has, once again, lived up to its reputation for presenting art that is deeply human and engagingly real.