My Name is Asher Lev…a theatre review by Deb Meyer

May 16, 2016 by Deb Meyer
Read on for article

Over the years, non-Jewish book reviewer Doug Cannon and his Dad would occasionally have a conversation about Chaim Potok’s classic novel.

It would invariably go something like this:

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Tim McGarry and John O’Hare in My Name is Asher Lev Photo: Blumenthal Photography

My dad asks, “You have never read My Name is Asher Lev?”
and I would reply, “No, I haven’t”.
“You are so lucky! Now you still have the joy of looking forward to reading the book.”
“We’ve had this conversation before, Dad.”
“Then why haven’t you read it yet?”
“Because as soon as I read it, you won’t say I’m so lucky anymore.”

Doug finally read the book and thought the risk was worth it to be “less lucky”!

(www.goodreads.com.au, October 17, 2008)

Like Doug, many others have a very personal and heart-warming story to tell about their experience of My Name is Asher Lev. This reviewer included. It is indeed an iconic, emotionally compelling novel and highly influential for many readers.

Aaron Posner’s award winning play draws closely to Potok’s novel, with its timeless and universal story – a Chassidic Jew in post war Brooklyn, with a gift for painting from a young age, who struggles to become an artist at any cost, against the will of his parents, community and tradition. It’s a heartbreaking tale of a man struggling with his identity in a cloistered world where devout religious practice and free artistic expression collide. His father Aryeh sees his art as ‘’foolishness’’ and his mentor art teacher, Jacob also acknowledges, as an artist, Asher Lev is ‘’entering the world of the goyim’’. As a Rabbi and author, Potok well understood what it meant to be an adolescent boy both sustained and suffocated by his religious community.

Produced by Moira Blumenthal, Encounters@Shalom, with Michael Misrachi and Michael Shur at the helm, My Name is Asher Lev graces the stage at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse. The irony in using a newly converted church for the Australian premier of a play about a religious Jew who finds artistic expression through painting crucifixions, is certainly not lost.

With a wealth of directing experience in Australia and South Africa, Moira Blumenthal is passionate about staging Jewish stories. For this there’s a real appetite in the Sydney Jewish community as evidenced by the growing number of supporters and participating Jewish organisations listed in the program. With Encounters@Shalom, Blumenthal directed and coproduced The Chosen (2014) based on the novel by Chaim Potok and Coming to see Aunt Sophie by Arthur Feinsod (2015), both finely crafted productions.

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John O’Hare, Tim McGarry and Annie Byron Blumenthal Photography

This staging of Asher Lev did not achieve the same emotional resonance as either of the two plays above, nor of Potok’s powerful book. The slower pace and energy of the production made it difficult to feel fully immersed in the story. Along with a snappier pace, the production would benefit from finding additional lightness in a play that’s filled with darkness. When light does come, in the form of Jacob and his model, to be painted nude as part of Asher’s tutelage, the release is most welcome. Tension slowly builds with the climax taking place in the art gallery when Asher Lev’s parents arrive to see, with shock and horror, their son’s first exhibition. This is a well-crafted scene, with the minimalist set of hanging windows (designed by Hugh O’Connor) and lighting (designed by Emma Lockhart-Wilson) used to great dramatic effect.

Blumenthal has assembled a cast of three highly accomplished actors. As Asher Lev, John O’Hare brings intensity to the role, though is seemingly more at ease playing the older Asher Lev than the younger versions in the flashback scenes. O’Hare portrays with sensitivity and tenderness Asher’s close relationship with his mother. However, a demanding role such as this, requires an actor to carry the audience on a very believable journey as a tormented Chassidic Jew, which O’Hare did not consistently achieve.

Annie Byron plays Asher Lev’s mother – a complex role that Byron embodies with a combination of strength and vulnerability. It’s a role that highlights a mother’s dilemma in supporting her child’s burning passion vis-a-vis her allegiance to her husband’s wishes and community’s Chassidic tradition. Byron also plays the art gallery owner and art class model that Asher is encouraged to paint nude. This is a lovely scene, depicting the torment Asher faces in having to make a choice between fostering his art (through the tradition of painting nudes) or staying true to his religious tradition.

Tim McGarry is a highly versatile actor, as seen in Blumenthal’s production of Coming to see Aunt Sophie. In Asher Lev, he similarly plays a number of roles, including Asher’s father Aryeh (an emissary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe) and uncle Yakov. He also dons the role of the Lubavitcher Rebbe as well as Asher’s 72 year old art teacher and mentor, Jacob. McGarry is layered in his portrayal of Aryeh, displaying both angst and an attempt to better understand his son’s artistic obsession, however his portrayal of Jacob is his most believable role, particularly encouraging Asher to be ‘’authentic’’ and not ‘’hide behind a facade’’ lest he become a ‘’whore’’ or a ‘’fraud’’.

On opening night, Chaim Potok’s daughter Naama Potok – herself a thespian and writer, in Sydney for the Australian premier, further expressed the importance of art and truth, believing that ‘’art both preserves and heals our souls and that it must remain a form and vehicle in which we can mine ourselves for truth’’. She further highlighted the importance of ‘’young people engaging and asking questions of themselves in the world’’, which no doubt her father imbued in her from a young age.

Chaim Potok’s story is still a profound and poignant one and though this production of Aaron Posner’s play does not resonate as powerfully as the original, will still have a wide reach for young people and for those who are ‘lucky’ not yet to have read the iconic novel.

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My Name is Asher Lev a play by Aaron Posner adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok

Until May 29

Director: Moira Blumenthal

Producers: Moira Blumenthal, Michael Misrachi, Michael Shur and Encounters@Shalom

Duration: 90 minutes (no interval)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst

Tickets: Prices from $34 – $46

Bookings: www.encounters.edu.au

Comments

One Response to “My Name is Asher Lev…a theatre review by Deb Meyer”
  1. Ralene Reuveny says:

    Hi Debbie

    Your theatre review was right on the money.

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