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Theater Tue Sep 02 2014

Timeline Explores the Power of Art to Hurt and to Heal in My Name Is Asher Lev

Photo by Lara Goetsch.

Asher Lev is an artist, a fresh-faced, cherubic artist whose paintings horrify his deeply religious Hasidic parents and community. "My gift is demonic and divine. It has the power to hurt and the power to heal," he says at the end of this eloquent 90-minute rumination on the challenges of art and faith, family and responsibility.

Timeline Theatre is staging the Chicago premiere of My Name Is Asher Lev, written by Aaron Posner and adapted from the best-selling 1972 novel about the Brooklyn Hasidic community by author and rabbi Chaim Potok. The three-actor play, directed by Kimberly Senior, is staged on a two-level set with three musicians at side stage. Andrew Hansen's original score for clarinet, cello and violin creates a subtly beautiful undercurrent to the dialogue and ends the play with a klezmer flourish.

Alex Weisman gives Asher a believable solemnity and commitment to his family and his religion as his passion for his art deepens. Lawrence Grimm and Danica Monroe both are excellent as Asher's parents and in other roles. Grimm is particularly strong as the famous painter Jacob Kahn, a nonobservant Jew who discovers the talented Asher as a 13-year-old and takes him on to mentor and train him as an artist.

Asher presents us with the intellectual and emotional conflict of his life in his opening lines:

My name is Asher Lev.
The Asher Lev.
The notorious and legendary Lev, the painter of the Brooklyn Crucifixions.
I am an observant Jew. A Hasid. What some call a Torah Jew.
And, yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions.

And later he explains how he came to be an artist.

I have no recollection of when I first began to use my gift... It seems to have always been with me. A fact of my life. Like eating, sleeping, being a male, being Jewish. I cannot remember a time when I was not transferring the world around me to pieces of paper, margins of books, napkins, my mashed potatoes, whatever came to hand."

Asher guides us through the course of this moving play with a series of short monologues and commentaries upon the scenes on stage. We meet him first as a 12-year-old, whose mother finally has finally taken him to visit an art museum. His resulting drawings are copies of what he sees, including nudes and crucifixions. Despite his parents' objections, these images continue to fascinate him as he develops talent and fame as an artist. And they result in his ultimate breach with his family and his faith.

It turns out that Kahn's most prescient advice to Asher is, "As an artist you are responsible to no one and nothing except to yourself and to the truth as you see it! An artist is responsible to his art! Just that. Anything else is propaganda."

Senior's direction perfectly tunes the pace and timing of this stirring story and the three actors carry out their roles with emotional depth. Brian Sidney Bembridge's lighting and scenic design create a space of dark woods that change easily from family kitchen to office to studio. The upper level space and the stairs leading to it serve as Asher's gallery and his studio. Elise Kauzlaric's dialect coaching has worked very well, especially in helping Weisman develop Asher's Brooklyn accent.

My Name Is Asher Lev continues through Oct. 18 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Performances are at varying times Wednesday through Sunday with a few Tuesday shows. Tickets are $37-50 and can be bought online or by calling 773-327-5252. Pre-show and post-show discussions are planned for a number of dates throughout the run. More information is available here.


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Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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