By BRUCE DENNILL
My Name Is Asher Lev / Directed by Moira Blumenthal / Studio, Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Examining the importance of art in the context of a play, in a theatre (as opposed to in a boardroom or lecture hall), adds an enormous amount of weight to the arguments made in its defence. My Name Is Asher Lev tells the story of the eponymous artist – a painter – whose career is nearly ended before it begins.
He is the scion of a deeply orthodox Hasidic Jewish couple, Aryeh (Alan Swerdlow, in a memorable return to the boards) and Rivkeh (the always convincing Louise Saint-Claire), whose profound commitment to their heritage, community and leaders (the Rebbe) makes them a less than appreciative audience when confronted with the intensity of their son’s artistic vision and the perspectives he bases it on. This is not to say that Asher (Robert Fridjhon) is not loved and supported, but as in all families, the relationships are complex, and the fact that the youngster will, if indulged, be a trailblazer in his community makes the risks inherent in giving him his head seem more extreme.
The play is has a somewhat fractured timeline, with Asher functioning as the narrator as well as the protagonist. This allows Fridjhon to look the same throughout the piece, even though he is, at different times, playing a child, then a teenager, and finally a young man beginning to make real strides as a respected artist.
This mechanism aside, the play essentially tells a traditional story about traditional folk, resulting in something that feels enjoyably old-fashioned – free of the gimmicks so often used in an attempt to add freshness, but which more often than not simply muddy the waters. This story involves a father who has plenty of passion but directs most of it towards members of his tribe other than those who live in his house, a mother who bears the weight of her husband’s duty and the potential of her talented son as well as the frustrations of both, and a youngster who is discovering his calling and trying to manage the family friction that causes.
It’s an edgy relationship study, but a relatable one, in which it’s possible to understand – and find reasonable – everyone’s point of view. Ant the portrait it paints (if you will) of Asher Lev is so convincing that you’ll leave the theatre believing he’s a real historical figure. He’s not, though a bit of research reveals that author Chaim Potok, who wrote the book from which Aaron Posner adapted the play, was himself a talented painter, and created a work called the Brooklyn Crucifixion, one of the works Lev takes a great deal of flack for in the play.
This is an affecting, intimate piece, never flashy but well made and effective throughout.