Chicago Theater Review: MY NAME IS ASHER LEV (TimeLine Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 29, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

YOU CAN NEVER GO HOME—AGAIN

Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel My Name is Asher Lev is a coming-of-age story that pits one passion against another. It depicts the declaration of independence by a young Jewish artist from his rigid Hasidic childhood and a family where obedience is prized over self-expression. Aaron Posner’s successful, 90-minute stage adaptation, now a compelling Chicago premiere by the ever-excellent TimeLine Theatre Company (now in its 18th season), does rich justice to the title character’s crisis of conscience.

Asher Lev (Alex Weisman, right) needs his mother (Danica Monroe) to understand his passion for art and painting in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago premiere of My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, directed by Kimberly Senior, presented at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, August 22 - October 18, 2014. Photo by Lara Goetsch.

No question, the two realms that, Solomon-like, claim Asher’s loyalty—the fiercely rooted tradition of religion and the exhilarating alternative of art—get their full due. Director Kimberly Senior does as much for the script, giving expository narrative and illustrative flashbacks a first-person, present-tense immediacy.

Asher Lev (Alex Weisman, left) is taught about painting and art by the renowned Jacob Kahn (Lawrence Grimm) in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago premiere of My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, directed by Kimberly Senior, presented at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, August 22 - October 18, 2014. Photo by Lara Goetsch.

It’s a familiar choice, breaking away from home and heritage to, as the title suggests, forge a new meaning for your name. By process of elimination, Asher will find a form and function for his paintings as well.  It’s the same “I can’t help it” dilemma that afflicts Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy: whether to become a violinist as his father desires or a boxer as ambition dictates. Or, for that matter, Charles Darwin as he dealt with a true-believing wife who was increasingly alienated by his discovery of evolution. Or Tevye the milkman, who draws the line when his third daughter dares to marry outside the faith.

Asher Lev (Alex Weisman, left) receives counsel from the Rebbe (Lawrence Grimm) in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago premiere of My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, directed by Kimberly Senior, presented at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, August 22 - October 18, 2014. Photo by Lara Goetsch.

But familiarity, whether it breeds contempt, is not exactly a blessing either. There are few surprises because we’ve seen this struggle.

Alex Weisman plays the much-tested Asher, living in post-war Brooklyn, narrating and acting out his life as a budding artist, saddled with a family who likes to nip. What the father calls “foolishness” is Asher’s quest for identity: Old fashions won’t fit. The theater’s back wall is symbolically covered with blank sheets representing his liberty-seeking paintings. It’s obvious he’s found a second religion and these sacrifices are voluntary.

Alex Weisman portrays the title role in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago premiere of My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, directed by Kimberly Senior, presented at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, August 22 - October 18, 2014. Photo by Lara Goetsch.

Lawrence Grimm plays the pivotal and oppositional men in Asher’s tug of war: his benevolent but short-lived uncle; the stern Old Testament patriarch, a moral eminence whose controlling cause is to rescue Jews from oppression in Russia; the authoritarian rabbi who enforces the sect’s many dietary and behavior prohibitions; and Jacob Cahn, the equally unbending elderly artist who gives Asher, his “little Chagall,” encouragement and inspiration: “Paint the way you feel” and “Do not lie.”

Danica Monroe plays the women in Asher’s passion play: his “big sister” of a mother who lives to help her husband; his first artist’s model; and a “free spirit” he meets in Greenwich Village.

Asher Lev (Alex Weisman, right) struggles against the will of his parents (Danica Monroe and Lawrence Grimm) in his quest to become an artist in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago premiere of My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, directed by Kimberly Senior, presented at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, August 22 - October 18, 2014. Photo by Lara Goetsch.

The outcome, like Asher’s avocation, is never in doubt. Still, watching Asher take responsibility for his secular faith is as edifying as seeing Huck Finn defy his “conscience” to help Jim to escape slavery. Richly enhancing this stirring staging is Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scholarly and curatorial setting and the intense live jazz/klezmer accompaniment that evokes Asher’s warring worlds, skillfully played by Adam DeGroot, Merrick Jones, and Elena Spiegel.

Asher Lev (Alex Weisman, center) doesn't know how his parents (Danica Monroe and Lawrence Grimm) will respond to his paintings in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago premiere of My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, directed by Kimberly Senior, presented at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, August 22 - October 18, 2014. Photo by Lara Goetsch.photos by Lara Goetsch

My Name is Asher Lev
TimeLine Theatre Company
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue
Wed and Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8:00;
Sat at 4:00 and 8:00; Sun at 2;
Tues 9/16, 10/7 and 10/14 only at 7:30
scheduled to end on October 18, 2014
for tickets, call (773) 327-5252
or visit www.timelinetheatre.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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