Having recently seen Aaron Posner’s take on Chekhov’s The Seagull, Stupid F---ing Bird, at Urbanite Theatre, I was at first surprised to see that Posner was also the adaptive hand behind the stage version of Chaim Potok’s novel My Name Is Asher Lev, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating Theatre.
The two works, although both adaptations in their way, seemed so different to me in approach and tone. The I realized that Posner had also written the stage adaptation for Potok’s The Chosen more than 15 years ago, and his affinity for the late Jewish writer’s work seemed clearer.
My Name is Asher Lev is or has often been required reading for students, to whom the title character’s conflicts with his parents as he grows up might be familiar, even though the specific world of Asher—Hasidic Jewish family in post World War II Brooklyn—might be foreign. In the play, a grown Asher (Ben Rosenbach) takes us back to places in his memory, from early days of discovering that he had a rare artistic talent to teen years and beyond spent trying to reconcile that talent with the faith of his parents, as well as his own.
For Asher’s father (Nathan Kaufman), who is passionately dedicated to helping Jews around the world and especially in Russia, Asher’s inability to turn his attention from drawing to more “worthwhile” studies is inexplicable and frustrating. For his gentle mother (Naama Potok, the daughter of novelist Potok), there is pride in Asher’s gift, but also concern, especially when his subject matter turns to nudes and, eventually, to crucifixions.
She stands in the middle of the ongoing argument, and is further torn apart by the tragic loss of her brother (also played by Kaufman), which nearly drives her mad. What will happen to this family when Asher (with the permission of his community’s powerful Rebbe, or rabbi) begins studying with a nonobservant Jewish artist (again, Kaufman), who sees well before Asher the painful choices that must be made?
It’s an intriguing topic, and the cast, under the direction of Jason Cannon, feels personally as well as professionally committed to their roles here. Their dialogue (taking place on an appropriately simple set by Bruce Price using just a table, chairs, a bookcase, an easel and a large window) convinces and their beliefs seem real, although Rosenbach’s delivery (with a strong Brooklyn accent) could sometimes use more variation in intensity and pacing.
Potok, as well as Kaufman, plays more than one role here, but it’s her performance as Rivkeh, the mother, that will linger with you after the curtain falls. Her face expresses more of her emotions even than her words and makes us feel keenly her suffering, as well as her occasional moments of joy.
While so specific to one family’s struggle, My Name Is Asher Lev has reverberations that reach a much wider circle of readers and viewers. The production continues through March 27; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.