How do you paint a portrait of the artist as a young Hasidic man, in 90-minutes, using stage narration as your base? That’s the task for the three-person cast of Aaron Posner’s adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel, My Name is Asher Lev, now on at the Lyric.
There can be few trickier challenges for an actor than keeping an audience emotionally engaged while constantly stepping in and out of the moment. That’s actor Jason Schuchman’s challenge in the play’s title role. He must take us with him both as the boy living the events that shape him and the man relating them to us years later. He does. Schuchman enlivens each piece of narration as realization being found in the present. The scenes he then dramatizes therefore, never feel like a story interrupted, but rather like the imagistic raw materials of memory from which he will strive to draw as narrator.
Schuchman gets plenty of strong support from Joel Colodner and Anne Gottlieb, who play the host of adult influences in the life of the young Asher Lev, distinguishing them through shades of voice and posture. Colodner plays Lev’s father, a stern, sincere yet unyielding orthodox Jew who cannot understand his son’s frivolous seeming interest in visual communication in a culture that both worships and worships through, text.
He also plays this character’s foils: in an early scene, an encouraging uncle who sees the young Lev as the next Chagall, or even Picasso, and in a later scenes, Lev’s second father figure, a lapsed orthodox Jew who gave up his culture to live his life as a sculptor and now seeks to sculpt Lev into an artists capable of surpassing his own achievements. As Colodner’s deep, resonant voice booms from the throats of both men, their parallels—stern orthodoxy to their religious traditions that supersede their genuine sensitivity and fondness—boom forth as well.
Gottlieb plays Lev’s long-suffering mother, who sees Lev’s potential but cannot see past the aspects of his work that are challenging to her narrow code of values, who sees meaningful work for herself beyond that afforded to a Orthodox Jewish woman, but cannot unhook the yolk of her faith. In the opposite vein, she plays a breezy model and a flighty art dealer who agrees to consider Lev’s work before she realizes he is an Orthodox view, and allows her discriminating taste to overrule her prejudices about who can and can’t be an artist.
Strikingly, as Lev grows as an artist, he comes to draw from an archetypal image that comes to him in dreams and visions. It is an itinerant ancestor, the wandering Jew. Archetypes add to the power of his production to the extent that it winds up feeling meaningful rather than artificial that all of the men and women in Lev’s life are the same man and woman disguised.
Theater turns out to be a useful medium for talking about painting; it’s always about the excitement of watching the creative process unfold before your eyes.
Directed by Scott Edmiston, “My Name is Asher Lev” plays at the Lyric Stage Company through March 13