Posted on Apr 26, 2013
5 out of 5
My Name is Asher Lev, playing at the Unicorn through May 12, takes its conflict from the point where art and devout religion clash. The play, by Aaron Posner, from the novel by Chiam Potok, tells the story of Asher Lev, born into a family of devout Hassidic Jews in the middle of the twentieth century. Asher's world is one of devotion to the faith and commitment to the Rebbe. His father devotes his life to the promotion of Judaisim, particularly in Soviet Russia, where Stalin has just died and opportunities are now open for Jews to enter and proselytize. Asher's mother is a woman devoted to her family and serving the men of her faith.
At an early age, Asher begins to show skill at drawing, making accurate depictions of family members when he is only six. He is fascinated by the world of art around him, much more so than his interest in his religion, whose studies he neglects to go to museums and galleries. He also has the added difficulty of only being able to draw the world as he sees it. He produces unflattering portraits of family members and teachers, despite is mother’s admonishments to "draw something pretty." His gift is not in depicting the beauty of the world, only the truth as he sees it. He also tends to paint religious imagery, both Hassidic and Christian, which his faith sees as blasphemy.
His family and faith do not value his talent, but even they recognize it as a gift, and he is sent by the Rebbe to study under the artist Jacob Khan. Khan becomes the nurturing father figure the boy needs and devotes himself to training Asher, regardless of the conditions imposed by the church and the Rebbe. For example, in a beautiful scene, Jacob teaches Asher to draw the nude human form, a big taboo for his faith. Later, Asher logically explains the need for this to his uncomprehending father.
Asher becomes a prodigy on the art scene, his paintings selling well. He hits an artistic breakthrough with a show that breaks all conventions and taboos, causing a final break with his family.
This is a lovingly done, beautiful show. The acting is superlative. Doogin Brown plays Asher Lev in a soulful performance, allowing us to see the man with all his flaws. Asher, as written in the story, is driven but not particularly likeable. Doogin Brown lets us see this flawed man in all his aspects without allowing us to look away. This may be the best work I've seen this actor do.
All the other characters are played by Mark Robbins and Manon Halliburton, two of Kansas City’s finest. Robbins exudes warmth as Jacob Khan, Asher's mentor and also finds the complexities in the role of Asher's father. Halliburton is chameleon-like in her embodiment of the various female characters in the show, the primary one being Asher's loving, but devout mother.
If there is a flaw, it would be that this really is not a stage play, it is an adapted novel. It relies heavily on narration, and the climax leaves us a little underwhelmed. The passion is palpable, but the depiction of art is missing. But as an adapted novel, it is a tremendous one. It is full of ideas of the conflict of art and religions and where God resides in both of them.
Technically, it is a stunning play. The subtle but effective lighting design by Alex Perry sets the mood and moves the action. The multi-use set designed by Gary Mosby invokes both an artist’s studio and a cathedral. The costumes and the sound are flawless.
My Name is Asher Lev runs on the Unicorn's mainstage through May 12th.