In My Name is Asher Lev, the protagonist is a young Hasidic Jew who rebels against the “norms” and pursues his passion. He could have just as easily have been a young gay man coming to terms with his own sexuality. Such is the power of Aaron Posner’s theatrical adaptation of Chaim Potok’s coming-of-age story, currently on stage at the Pacific Theatre.
Asher Lev (Giovanni Mocibob) is a conflicted young man. On the one hand he is driven by an all-consuming passion for art and in the other by his strict Jewish upbringing. His talent is unmistakable, even drawing accolades from those that might otherwise prevent him from pursuing his gift, but one question remains unanswered and continues to haunt him: is this a gift from god or from some darker place?
Telling the story in a series of monologues and flashbacks, Mocibob is assisted by Nathan Schmidt and Katharine Venour who play all of the other roles in the show, including Asher’s parents. Both Schmidt and Venour are particularly appealing as the two parents: Schmidt the stern father who tries but ultimately cannot understand Asher’s obsession with art and Venour as the mother who must weigh her love for her son with the love for her husband.
Mocibob, in his first professional stage role, does a wonderful job as Asher. He easily moves from narrator to participant in his life’s story helping to literally paint the scenes for us as they are played out. We feel his internal conflict, his passion and his pain. By the end of the play we are satisfied in Asher’s decision, while still feeling the love he retains for his family and his community.
Director Morris Ertman has wisely stayed away from having Mocibob act the various ages that he must portray in the story. Subtle movements help to set age but largely we are left with a simple, and effective, adult re-telling of the significant times in Asher’s young life.
Lauchlin Johnston’s simple set places the entire action inside “the hand of god” with entrances and exits through a single opening as if they are stepping into or out of a painting. While both these elements might seem at first a little too literal, they help as constant reminders of Asher’s pursuit as an artist and his belief that indeed everything comes from god.
Luke Ertman’s sound design mostly provides a beautiful underscore to the action on the stage but at times I did find it intrusive, almost to the point of distracting.
Growing up I never had the opportunity to read Potok’s novel, but through this stage adaptation it is easy to see how it could have had a profound effect on any young man (or woman) struggling with their own questions about life. And while I may be a too old now for the story to have that same impact, My Name is Asher Lev still managed to touch me, knowing that the struggle to find my own answers was worth it.
Such is the power of passion. Such is the power of life.
Adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production. On stage at Pacific Theatre through February 26, 2011.
Visit http://www.pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.