Regional Reviews: St. Louis
My Name is Asher Lev
Also see Richard's review of The Thanksgiving Play
In the meantime, what makes it all worthwhile are the characters and their conflicts. In My Name is Asher Lev, at the New Jewish Theatre, director Aaron Sparks presents us with a long list of "must nots" from strict parents with old world rules as observant Jews in 1950s Brooklyn, and their artistic son who can't stop rule-breaking, whether it's learning to paint nude women or immortalizing his mother in a sacrilegious way. In this new staging, it's a familiar story, but also a fun ride.
Aaron Posner (famed for his modern updates of Chekhov) adapted the best-selling novel by Chaim Potok for the stage in 2009. And Spencer Sickman, as Asher, now brings the story to life. Mr. Sickman easily regresses back to childhood, where his wary immigrant parents discover his artistic abilities through his drawings. As a six-year-old he has already invented a way to use cigarette ash to shade his portraits, experimenting with smears to add depth. Amy Loui and Chuck Winning play Asher's mother and father; they also manage several fast costume changes, in their brief moments backstage, to embody a variety of other characters.
Mr. Sickman is one of those lovable "universal man" actors, like Jimmy Stewart or Laura Dern, embarking on a journey to greatness in this 90-minute drama. Ms. Loui dredges a Grand Canyon of anguish from her heart when a close relative dies suddenly, changing the family dynamic; and Mr. Winning is, well, winning as the iconoclastic old artist who will become Asher's mentor. One of the most surprising costume changes comes well into the evening when he exits as the older artist and comes back almost immediately, through another door, as the father. I've seen it done backstage in other shows, but you'd never try to explain it to your insurance agent: The running and flailing in the dark, over beams and cables and counterweights, seems far more dangerous than Superman changing in the comparative safety of a phone booth. There are several other quick changes and plenty of gritty emotional moments out where we can see them, combining to keep the show both wrenching and intriguing.
So, beyond the powerful, concise storytelling, it's also a show about clever stagecraft, and the high art of deeply felt acting. Michele Friedman Siler supplies an array of costumes, and Rob Lippert's set and lighting add flashes of color in a transformative moment. But you could just as easily put The Corn is Green up there, with these same three actors (and backstage crew). And all of their powerful work would enliven any classic coming-of-age story as beautifully.
The coldness of a strict upbringing is thawed by cool jazz in the second half of the play, when Asher is introduced to post-modernism, set to the music of Miles Davis. Ms. Loui is slyly funny as a New York art dealer and elsewhere as a knowing model. You get a totally different sense of Asher's upbringing and psychological needs from them as the artist and art dealer, than when the same actors reappear as his biological father and mother. There's plenty of rule-breaking in each "family." But in very different worlds.
My Name is Asher Lev runs through February 9, 2020, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Drive, just off Schuetz Rd., west of Lindbergh Rd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.
* Member, Actors Equity Association