"Be a great artist," a mentor tells a young Jewish painter who likes to draw Jesus Christ. "It is the only justification for all the pain you are about to cause."
In the case of the youthful Hasid Asher Lev, born among traditions of religiosity, deference and communal responsibility, the pain is mostly that of his parents, who have to deal with a son who first starts out scribbling down pictures of the images inside his head and graduates quickly to an interest in painting crucifixes, there being nothing, it is said, in his own Jewish tradition that so powerfully embodies the anguish that fuels his creativity.
Asher Lev, a 1967 creation of the late and beloved novelist and rabbi Chaim Potok, rises quickly within the art establishment, a world with the value system of "goyim and pagans." But his metaphors of choice do not sit well either with his family or his community's Rebbe and, as he matures, Asher has to learn that to be an honest artist — as distinct, say, from one that paints tchotchkes — is to be an outsider.
If you are using your family for material — and what honest artist does not use his family for material? — then maybe pariah is the more accurate term. When you think about it, the last few minutes of "My Name is Asher Lev" have much in common with Sholem Aleichem's tales of Tevye the Dairyman, who struggles mightily with his daughter's decision to marry outside the faith and who determines, with great agony, that if he bends too far in deference to the wishes of his child, he may well find that he breaks into little pieces. The main difference here is that the protagonist of the tale is the child, not the parent.
The relatively new dramatic version of "My Name is Asher Lev," produced in Chicago for the first time as the season opener at the TimeLine Theatre, is the work of the stimulating scribe Aaron Posner.
In the case of "Asher Lev," Posner certainly homes in on the dominant theme of the novel: An artist worth his salt has to listen to his gift and hang the personal consequences. Although when you watch this fast-paced show, which is directed with a crisp, clear and strikingly unsentimental fluidity by Kimberly Senior, you do wonder whether the merits of a quieter, gentler life did not warrant a little fuller consideration.
Much of what Asher goes through could be applied, as Posner makes abundantly clear, to the life of the writer. Many a playwright or novelist has betrayed her family, after all. Posner is hardly the first to explore that issue (
The story in play here is told by just three actors: Alex Weisman plays Asher, with Lawrence Grimm and Danica Monroe playing everyone else, but mostly, of course, Asher's long-suffering parents. Senior has cast very well. Grimm is moving and the unstinting Monroe is comfortable playing everyone (except the nude model who Asher learns to paint), and all three performances (of characters with their clothes on, anyway) feel honest and authentic.
Weisman, who is forceful, cool and disciplined here, keeps Asher at a certain remove from the dilemmas his character faces. I'd guess that's a conscious decision by actor and director. It keeps the show moving, dramatizes artistic distance and ensures no wallowing in kitchen-table sentiment. This is a very interesting performance from one of Chicago's best young actors, although I did, in the final analysis, wonder if that remove needed to be more of a process than a state of being. And I craved more of what such choices cost an artist who clearly loves his parents and his religious tradition, even as he hacks away at its tenets.
When: Through Oct. 18
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes