Friday, March 4, 2011

My Name is Asher Lev

From left, Leslie Foley (violinist/composer), Elliot Weiner, Jeffrey Alan Smith and Paige Hansen star in “My Name is Asher Lev” at Lakewood Playhouse.

This has been the best theater season since I began writing this column seven years ago.

I’ve seen one great play after another this year. The latest is “My Name is Asher Lev” by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, directed by Marcus Walker and starring Paige Hansen, Jeffrey Alan Smith and Elliot Weiner.

This is a powerful, emotionally draining and ultimately satisfying play. If there is anything to fault, it is that it sometimes verges on being overly melodramatic.

That’s fitting because the characters in this play are passionate people struggling with conflicts involving deeply held beliefs and traditions. Wrenching emotional conflicts are believable.

Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew and an artist. His talent is a gift, acknowledged as such by all, but even he wonders: Is it a gift from Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe) or from the Sitra Achra (the Other Side)?

The play is a single act with no set changes. The beautiful thrust stage designed by Henry Loughman has a few pieces of dark wood furniture on a beautiful wood floor with a wall of backlit floor-to-ceiling windows as a backdrop. Violinist Leslie Foley sits in the background and plays lovely and stylistically appropriate music during the performance – music she composed for this show.

The unchanging set serves as the home of Asher and his parents, as the Rebbe’s office and as an art gallery. Lighting effects designed by Mark Thomason indicate changes of scene and time. Dispensing with scene changes allows the story to flow smoothly throughout Asher Lev’s life, from the time he is 6 until his maturity.

Smith plays the part of Asher. He tells the story in the first person. The writer’s decision to use first-person narration allows for a long novel to be condensed into an hour-and-a-half play. Smith is a newcomer to Washington stages. He comes from Minnesota, where he graduated from Minnesota State University in Mankato. Through tone of voice and expression, he compellingly plays the conflicted and loving son and artist at different ages.

Hansen and Weiner rise to the challenge of playing many characters using only simple costume changes and variations in voice and manner. Hansen plays Asher’s mother, a gallery owner and an artist’s model. Weiner is all of the other male characters including Asher’s father, the Rebbe, and the eccentric and autocratic artist Jacob Khan, who is Asher’s mentor.

The character changes are clear: Asher’s mother and the gallery owner look nothing alike, even though the only physical change is a wig, and when Weiner enters in the guise of the Rebbe, his voice and walk are so different that we immediately know we are looking at someone else. Weiner expresses violent emotion with a modicum of restraint. Hansen shows controlled intensity in conveying the inner conflicts of a mother trying to mediate between her husband and son.

Very seldom do we see timing, lighting, acting and music come together so well to create another world. There is an otherworldly feel to this play as if it’s far away and a long time ago, but it is set in America within the lifetime of many of us. It’s a world and a way of being that is both universal and specific. Kudos to director Marcus Walker, the actors and to everyone who worked to bring Asher Lev to Lakewood’s lucky South Sound audiences.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 20
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
Tickets: $27.50, $24.50 seniors and military, $21.50 students younger than 25
Information: 253-588- 0042, www.lakewood

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