In the last few seasons at the Performance Network Theatre, artistic director David Wolber has invited audiences to peek behind the canvas at artists in society. There was A Picasso, in which Nazis want to burn one of the visionary’s “degenerate” paintings. Peggy Guggenheim’s art collection was at stake in Woman Before a Glass. And Red took us inside the world of Mark Rothko, asking if an artist can remain true to himself while pursuing a commercial project.
On the boards now (through September 8) is a wonderful addition to that oeuvre, My Name Is Asher Lev, Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel about a young artist whose vision brings him into conflict with his parents and his religion.
What makes an experience in the theater worthwhile has less to do with the genre or style of a work than with its honesty. Is a play an authentic expression of a playwright, given life by genuine performances? Or is it sentimental, cliched, or, in the words of a character in Asher Lev, “pretty”?
Asher Lev isn’t the least bit pretty. And the production at PNT is as riveting as it is truthful. Director David Magidson, artistic director of the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield Township, where the production had an earlier run, has drawn nuanced performances from his stellar cast, which he moves through time and place on a three-level flexible stage, designed by Sarah Tanner and painted with light by Jon Weaver.
Asher, whose Hasidic family lives in post-World War II Brooklyn, is drawn to art, compelled to put sadness he sees on paper. This shocks his father, who travels widely on behalf of his synagogue and finds art sacrilegious. And it puts his mother in the middle of a painful conflict. If paint he must, why won’t Asher paint pretty pictures–flowers and birds, not nudes, crucifixes, and unflattering portraits of her?
Is art a choice or does it choose those who give their lives to it? Can a son reject what is central to his father’s identity or accept it and become someone he isn’t? What will Asher, who loves his parents and is himself an observant Jew, do? Can his mother resolve the tensions, or are they too deep?
Each actor here makes us care about these questions. John Seibert is convincing in four roles, transforming among Asher’s father to his mentor, the rabbi, and a supportive uncle; so too is Naz Edwards, as his mother, a gallery owner, and a model. Mitchell Koory, who narrates this memory play, creates a very young Asher and moves through different stages in his life. All top-flight actors, they are aided by Mary Copenhagen’s �xADperiod-appropriate costumes, reinforced by Julia Gray’s soundscape.