"Every great artist has freed himself from something — his family, his nation, his race," warns the worldly mentor to an aspiring painter in Chaim Potok's semi-autobiographical novel, "My Name Is Asher Lev."
As the Fountain Theatre's affecting L.A. premiere of Aaron Posner's three-actor stage adaptation eloquently illustrates, the greater the artist, the more painful sacrifices that separation entails.
Posner's script skillfully retains the book's introspective narrative voice, philosophical insights and essential plot points, as its title character (played with convincing passion by Jason Karasev) wrestles with conflicted loyalties between his deeply-held Jewish faith and his artistic gift.
That gulf is especially daunting given the play's 1950s setting amid the insular Hasidic subculture in Brooklyn's Crown Heights. So rigidly ingrained are the traditions of his family's extremely conservative sect that young Asher has difficulty even shaking a woman's hand when he ventures into the art world at the start of his professional career.
The play resonates with Potok's double-edged truths about any faith-based community: It can provide support, continuity of norms and values, and sense of purpose, but it can also be tyrannical and suffocating to the creative spirit. As Asher's studies immerse him in a broader European artistic heritage, the solitary bridge between his two worlds becomes increasingly precarious.
Posner's reverence for the source text at times handicaps his translation for the stage (watching an adult actor portray a 6-year old is always a problematic device that requires a more flexible imagination than I possess). However, distracting artifice is minimized in Stephen Sachs' sensitive direction, which sketches Asher's path from childhood to maturity in striking visual and emotional strokes.
Versatile Joel Polis and Anna Khaja practically disappear into their respective diverse roles on each side of the secular-orthodox divide — Polis as Asher's sternly devout patriarch and equally zealous mentor, Khaja as a tough-minded art dealer and the mother desperately trying to keep the peace in her fractured household. While Asher's story embraces lofty social and religious themes, it unfolds in achingly personal terms.
"My Name Is Asher Lev," The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (dark March 15-16 and April 5). Ends April 19. $34. (323) 663-1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.