LET’S REVIEW! Theater patrons won’t forget ‘My Name Is Asher Lev’ now playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre
By Diana Saenger
Families often differ on religious beliefs, but when a Hassidic Jewish son shows early signs of breaking with tradition, the Lev family is up in arms. That’s the premise of “My Name Is Asher Lev,” playing at the North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) through June 26.
But there is nothing ordinary about this version of the conflict (adapted from the powerful novel by Chaim Potok) or the engrossing performances by its three actors.
Asher Lev (Craig De Lorenzo) begins drawing as a young child. While his mother, Rivkeh (Crystal Sershen), questions some of his subjects as inappropriate for an observant Jew to be sketching, she can only offer advice and the love of a mother. Asher’s father, Aryeh, (David Ellenstein) is not so easy on his son. He has a position to protect, as he’s becoming a right-hand man to the important Rebbe, the spiritual master and guide of a Hassidic community.
Although Asher stops painting for a few years, he comes to realize painting is in his soul. “A life is measured by how a man lives,” says Asher who relates much of his story to the audience in the first person.
By the time he’s a young man, even his father admits Asher has a gifted talent. But Aryeh cannot understand or abide his son’s obvious disdain of the orthodox religion and cautions Asher to fight against his inklings or they “will destroy the world.”
However, when the Rebbe suggests that Asher needs to follow his heart and arranges for him to meet Jewish artist Jacob Kahn, Asher decides he must and will pursue his art. Under his apprenticeship with Kahn, Asher learns – with a grimacing face – that painting nudes is how beginners learn their art. When he moves on to paint crucifixions, it’s more than his parents can tolerate.
There’s not a moment in this show when one doesn’t feel the gut-wrenching tug-of-war between these three family members. Kahn tells Asher “art IS a religion,” and throughout the play, Asher builds a slow-boiling pot of reasoning for the pain he causes his parents, but it’s never without a good helping of guilt.
Sershen, who also portrays two other characters in the play, is most perplexed as a Jewish mother, woman and wife. Whether worrying about her traveling husband, her disobedient son or her deceased brother, she wears her broken heart on her sleeve, and we, the audience, feel as if we’re wearing it, too.
In an interview advancing the production, NCRT Artistic Director David Ellenstein told me he had an affinity and connection to Potok’s writing and “Asher Lev” had a profound effect on him. Those feelings are transcended on stage in the four characters he plays.
As Asher’s father, embarrassed by his sons’ dismissal of morals and responsibility, he tries early on to teach his son the traditions of his family. Ellenstein throws a ridged passion into every scene as Aryeh while giving instructions to his son and his wife. In the Rebbe, Ellenstein instills a reverence that’s intended to guide by inspiration. Joyfully, as Yitzchok, Rivkeh’s visiting uncle, we get to see a really humorous side of Ellenstein. In Kahn, Ellenstein exudes just enough charm to entice Asher to follow his dream, and just enough wisdom to challenge the young artist about his life choices at every turning point.
With its engaging story and solid performances, North Coast Rep maintains its reputation for delivering thoroughly entertaining yet thought-provoking productions. Don’t miss “My Name Is Asher Lev.”
If you go
What: ‘My Name Is Asher Lev’
When: Matinees and evenings through June 26
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Contact: (858) 481-1055
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