Bohemian drama critic Harry Duke contributed this review.
In the 10-or-so years I’ve been doing theater journalism, I’ve probably seen close to one thousand shows, with about one-third of them being productions of Mamma Mia!—though The Addams Family Musical is rapidly approaching that number.
Lately, the repetitive nature of theater programming has been getting to me. I have found it difficult to work up enthusiasm to attend the umpteenth production of a classic Broadway musical or a director’s latest reimagining of Shakespeare. (“It’s Romeo and Juliet, but the families run rival cheesesteak shops in Philadelphia!”) I suppose it’s a hazard of the trade, but while many of the productions are quite good and serve their audiences well, I still often leave the theater with a feeling of “been there, seen that.”
My enthusiasm returns when I get the opportunity to see something I’ve never seen before; even more so when it’s something extraordinary.
Which brings me to My Name Is Asher Lev.
The 222 is a performing arts center housed in the Paul Mahder Gallery in Healdsburg, where Bay Area theater icon Aldo Billingslea has taken on the responsibility of programming live, professional theater. Earlier this year The 222 hosted a production of Chapatti, by the Rogue Theater Company of Ashland, Oregon.
For their first in-house production, Billingslea chose My Name Is Asher Lev, a show he has apparently been trying to mount for some time since its last local production in 2009 by the Marin Theater Company.
Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel is a 90-minute journey through the life of a Hasidic Jew gifted with a talent for art. Asher Lev (Jeremy Kahn) has a talent that is looked down on by his faith, as it seems to serve no purpose in the service of God—so much so that his father, Arye (David Sinaiko), wonders if it did not come from the sitra achra, the “other side.” Asher’s mother, Rivke (Danielle Levin), is torn between fostering Asher’s talent and honoring her faith and her husband.
In a stunning performance by Kahn, we follow Asher from age six through his young adulthood as he struggles to understand his gift, the conflicts with his faith and the resistance of his parents. His ultimate struggle is to define himself as an individual and his purpose for being; to find meaning in life beyond being a member of a community.
Sinaiko and Levin are equally impressive in their roles as Asher’s parents as well as multiple other family and community members, from the ancient Rebbe (Sinaiko), the spiritual leader of the Hasidic community, to a New York Gallery owner (Levin), to Jacob Kahn (Sinaiko), a non-observant Jew who has made his name in the art world and who challenges Asher on multiple fronts.
That it’s the Rebbe that brings the two together is just one of this play’s many fascinatingly contradictory elements. That the people who believe in Asher are not his parents—who do try—is one of its most crushing.
Limitations of the venue worked to director Amy Kossow’s advantage as this simply staged show’s focus remains on the performers. Characters were differentiated by quick costume changes, usually carried out behind a large but unobtrusive screen, while scene changes were indicated by subtle changes in lighting, the movement of a set piece or the actors simply shifting to another area on the minimally decorated stage.
To say I found My Name Is Asher Lev to be a profoundly moving experience would be an understatement. For all of the shows I’ve seen in my lifetime, I can only recall being genuinely moved to tears on a handful of occasions.
But there’s a moment in this show, where Asher relates an experience witnessing his parents’ reaction to something, that hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a transcendent moment of theatrical truth, at least for me, and it was emotionally devastating. No sooner had I gained my composure than it happened again, with a moment of anguish that I felt deep in my own being.
The show does not end on the happiest of notes, but it ends on a note of hard truth, a truth that many have discovered in their search for self-identity.
As difficult as those moments were for me, I left the gallery feeling refreshed and as excited about the theater as I’ve been in a long time. In an age where the art form has become more about spectacle, it’s reassuring to see that so much can be done and communicated with so little—a beautiful script, three actors, a director, a space and some lights.
‘My Name Is Asher Lev’ runs through Oct. 22 at The 222, 222 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. Thu, 7:30 pm; Fri, 6:30 pm; Sat & Sun, 2 pm. $45-$105. Students free with ID. 707.473.9152. the222.org.