A PREVIEW & A REVIEW
When I heard that Mira Hirsch, the founder and longtime head of Jewish Theater of the South, was tackling a production of one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, I didn’t know whether to be delighted or skeptical.
How, I asked myself, does one turn a multi-continent, multi-decade, multi-character novel into something manageable on the stage?
So I called Mira. Her enthusiasm was contagious as she told me how the production had come about: Tom Key of the Theatrical Outfit was a friend and a peer, a fellow theatrical director, she said. They’d worked together in the past.
“But this is the first time I’ve worked with Theatrical Outfit,” Hirsch said. “They’re true professionals, they have a great space…the old Herren’s. And they’ve done a magnificent job of creating the theater there.”
Tom Key had picked “Asher Lev” for his season.
“He felt very strongly about doing it,” Hirsch said, “He is drawn to pieces about art and artists. This piece is about an artist in conflict with his faith; that’s prevalent in Theatrical Outfit’s mission, doing works about faith, the struggle with faith.”
Why, I asked, should Jews in particular come to see this play?
“Anyone should come,” Hirsch responded. “It’s a beautiful story, a beautiful piece of theater, about the human condition, about some of the deepest questions in life.
“How do we all go about seeking the truth? What is our relationship to our community, our family, our faith? How can that be in conflict with our G-d-given talents and qualities? Here’s this young man who has been given an innate gift – or is it an innate curse? Why does he have this gift that is in conflict with the faith that is so important to him?
“We are all seeking the right balance of what we’ve been given, what we want and need our lives to be. How do we achieve that?”
Hirsch thinks Asher Lev has implications far beyond the Jewish community.
“I find this conflict so relevant and so similar – gay people in the religious community, Jewish, Christian or any other,” she said. “They’re dealing with this terrible conflict: ‘I am gay, I am a believer, I am both of these things.’
“Here’s Asher Lev, an artist, an observant Jew – how can he be one? He is both. There’s a huge relevance in the conflict – how to be not one or the other, but both.”
Hirsch sees Lev as an artist from his heart, a religious observant Jew from his head. This division impacts his world, his family and his very existence.
This was the first time I have ever walked out of a theater utterly speechless, totally bereft of words. Not only emotionally drained, I was stunned into silence by the intensity of the work – the writing, the acting, the scenery, the sheer meaning of it all.
Let it be known that I love Chaim Potok, that I’ve read and reread all of his novels. So the work was familiar to me, and yet – thanks to the incredible mind of playwright Aaron Posner (more about him later) and the vision of director Mira Hirsch – it was brand new, presented in a way I could not have imagined.
Only three actors, only one set and only one act, yet nobody moved a muscle, whispered or even (as far as I could tell) texted. I even forgot to take notes, and I normally have my review written before I leave the theater.
My biggest question after this tour de force: Where is Mira Hirsch going to land next and how will she ever top this production?
The basic premise is this: The ultra-Orthodox Jewish world does not, to put it kindly, look with favor on the artist. This, then, is the story of Asher Lev, born into the Ladover Chasidic community (a thinly-veiled fictionalization of the Lubavitch community) with an artistic talent and temperament.
His father is an assistant to the Rebbe, a stern realist who cannot comprehend or accept his son’s need to express himself artistically. His mother is a meek, good woman beaten down by life who tries to reconcile the differences between her husband and her son.
Early on, she asks her young son, “Are you making the world pretty?”
His answer: “It’s not a pretty world.”
This is the theme of the play – balance, trying to find where and how one can live in two worlds at once and how family members can maintain balance with one another as their lives drive them apart. Even the scenery reflects this: A huge scale hangs over the actors as they strive to balance the disparate parts of their lives.
Whether it’s Asher trying to be a good Jew while still true to his art, or his father trying to be faithful to his Jewish upbringing while working to forge a bond with his son, or the mother, driven by her own demons, attempting to keep her family unified; it’s all about the conflict that arises when the balance is challenged, especially conflicts between religion, tradition and personal need.
Just a word on the actors: Asher was played brilliantly by Nick Arapoglou. If I remember correctly, he was never off-stage, though his character ranged in age from six to adulthood, transitioning from childishly sweet to angry to obsessed flawlessly.
Brian Kurlander played Asher’s father, his uncle, the Rebbe and Asher’s teacher. I wondered ahead of time how one actor could portray several characters without each being a pale carbon of the others, but Brian did it; I didn’t always like his accents, but those as well as his body language were effective in sketching totally different characters.
For Lane Carlock, it was easier. A blonde wig and sexy dress transformed the meek housewife into a brassy businesswoman, owner of the gallery that displays Asher’s works. I have to say, as the meek housewife, she was a woman I meet daily in Kroger or Publix in the Toco Hills neighborhood.
When I complimented Carlock on her work, I was told theater student Meira Merlis had worked with her, and the result was so true to life I was ready to believe Lane had grown up in Brooklyn (which is not at all the case).
But even more impressive is how much Carlock, Kurlander, Arapoglou, Potok and Hirsch each put of themselves into this play. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I was entranced by the production, and I urge you to get down to the Balzer Theater at Herren’s on Luckie Street to see it for yourself.
Editor’s note: “My Name is Asher Lev” plays through Sept. 16; call (877) 725-8849 or visit thetricaloutfit.org for ticket information. Go online to atljewishtimes.com to read the extended version of this article, which includes Suzi Brozman’s interview with Chaim Potok.
By Suzi Brozman