My Name Is Asher Lev at North Coast Rep

My Name is Asher Lev plays like a speed-read of Chaim Potok’s novel.
  • My Name is Asher Lev plays like a speed-read of Chaim Potok’s novel.

"How can evil and ugliness make a gift of beauty?"

When he was six, Asher Lev began noticing the contours and textures of the world. He became alert to shadings of color, to the degrees of blackness in a shadow. His eye sought the unique in the everyday. He began to draw.

One day he sketched wet spots on his mother’s face. Why? It was a hot day, he said. The heat made them. He didn’t know the word for perspiration. Asked why he added the spots, Asher said that was how she looked. His father Aryeh, an observant Jew, said the “foolish” portrait showed disrespect. Asher must never draw again. “Torah Jews do not become painters.”

His son could have a gift, Aryeh admitted. But it may serve the Other Side. In Aryeh’s Hassidic tradition, the world has a “good” side and sitra achtra, the Other, where “all that is evil lurks.” Has drawing yanked Asher from the Being Without End and into the “realm of darkness and evil”?

But Asher is an observant Jew. He prays three times daily. He keeps kosher and practices festivals of his religion. He believes “it is a man’s task to make life holy.”

Chaim Potok’s novel (1972) makes Asher the battleground for competing traditions. It’s a portrait of a prodigy torn, according to his father, between the divine and the demonic. Jacob Kahn, the world-famous sculptor who worked alongside Picasso, disagrees. “Art is a religion,” he tells Asher. “Become a great artist. That is the only way to justify what you are doing to everyone’s life.”

So, Asher draws and paints and follows his gift. He studies the icons of the Western tradition. He begins drawing nudes, then — because he can’t find the painful expression on the man’s face anywhere else — crucifixions. Two have the face of Asher’s mother.

The novel’s a gripping read. Potok’s descriptions of how Asher learns to “feel with his eyes” make you want to explore beyond the familiar. Aaron Posner’s 90-minute stage adaptation, however, is so condensed it plays like a speed-read of the novel. Missing are the slow, agonizing percolation of Asher’s identities, his parents’ growing differences, and how his post-WWII sensibility can’t reconcile his two “religions.”

Asher narrates much of the story, often with direct quotations from the book. Telling rather than showing the story places it in the past, while theater thrives in the present (David Mamet: “the better the dramatist, the less the narration”). Two other actors join him in mini-scenes. Until the end, the drama’s intermittent.

But here’s an instance where the production enhances a so-so script.

For the North Coast Rep., Matt Novotny’s lighting turns the stage into an artist’s palette. Bold reds and subtle shadings enhance the story’s flickering moods. Megan Schmidt’s costumes reflect both “traditions”: yarmulkes and Hasidic ear-locks; Jacob Kahn’s free-form, paint-splattered apparel.

Marty Burnett’s minimalist set has an easel and fan-shaped clusters of empty canvases. These allow the audience to choose between Aryeh’s accusation, “moral blindness,” or Asher’s father’s “aesthetic blindness.” They also help underscore the play’s key word, “incomplete.” A nagging sense of unfinished business drives each person into the unknown.

David Ellenstein, artistic director at North Coast, shows his versatility in four different roles, including the diametrical opposites: stern Aryeh and life-exuding Jacob Kahn. As Asher, Craig De Lorenzo’s shackled by so much narration. Nonetheless, he braves through long speeches and often gives them emotional depth.

The adaptation’s major flaw: it puts Asher’s mother, Rivkeh, off in a corner (her suffering’s the heart of the book). Crystal Sershen, adept in several roles, fills in as many gaps as she can as Rivkeh, trapped “between two different ways of giving meaning to the world.”

For 34 years, Willy Loman lied his way inside the American Dream. In Arthur Miller’s drama, the walls tumble down.

New Village Arts’ current staging boasts three fine performances: Jeff Anthony Miller’s Ben, the rich uncle, is an epic being; Eric Poppick’s Charley, the next-door neighbor who breezes through life, does a master class in understatement; and Dana Case’s Linda Loman, from her perfect accent to unconditional love for her family, ranks among the finest Lindas I’ve ever seen.

Jack Missett’s opening-night effort as Willy had some strong moments. But too often his acting choices were clichés, especially the stagy hands reaching out. And his vocal and emotional ranges were far too narrow. The play wants to show “the world inside his head.” But this Willy was just a click or two above mere mumbling. Offstage voices stood in for his breakdown. ■

My Name Is Asher Lev, adapted by Aaron Posner from the Chaim Potok novel
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Directed by David Ellenstein and Christopher M. Williams; cast: Ellenstein, Craig De Lorenzo, Crystal Sershen; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Megan Schmidt; lighting, Matt Novotny; sound designer, M.Scott Grabau
Playing through July 3; Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-481-1055

Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
New Village Arts, 2787 B, State Street, Carlsbad
Directed by Kristianne Kurner; cast: Jack Missett, Dana Case, John DeCarlo, Greg Wittman, Kyle Lucy, Frances Regal, Eric Poppick, Jeff Anthony Miller, Sassan Saffari, Virginia Gregg, Kelly Iversen; scenic and sound design, Tim Wallace; lighting, Chris Renda; costumes, Mary Larson
Playing through July 3; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 760-433-3245

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