"It's poetic that a show about art takes place on a stage full of empty canvases," Chris Crawford says. "I think nothing would be as strong as what the audience creates in their minds."
Crawford plays the title role in American Stage's production of My Name Is Asher Lev, opening Friday. It's based on Chaim Potok's semi-autobiographical 1972 novel about a young man whose passion to express himself as a painter puts him at odds with his Hasidic Jewish family and community.
Aaron Posner's stage adaptation of the novel, still running off Broadway, won the 2012 Outer Critics Circle Award for playwriting. Posner streamlined the novel's complex plot and large cast for the play. "He's chosen to focus solely on Asher Lev," says T. Scott Wooten, the play's director.
Indeed, Crawford is the only cast member who plays a single character. Georgina McKee and Brian Webb Russell play all the other characters, including Asher's parents, his artistic mentor, a rabbi and a painter's model. "In a way they have a harder job," Crawford says. "They have to create all these different characters.
"It says something about the play, though, that the same actors play all these characters, because they sort of merge into parental figures for him."
Wooten says that despite the play's setting in post-World War II Brooklyn, it tells a universal story. "Even though this is an Orthodox Jewish family, if you grew up in any religious household you can understand it."
Crawford notes that the playwright describes it as a story about "when who you are is in direct conflict with your background."
My Name Is Asher Lev is a memory play, and much of it is narrative, with Asher sometimes entering scenes from the past, at other times describing them from the outside. That requires Crawford to play him at various ages, from 6 years old to mid 20s.
Crawford says that in Posner's notes on the play, "He says you should shy away from playing those (younger) ages, because it's hard for an audience to believe a 6-year-old being played by a 20-something. I try to conjure up that energy that a 6-year-old has."
Posner's notes also declare that Asher's paintings should never be shown, but left to the imagination. Still, preparation for the play involved plenty of art research. "T. Scott has printed off all these paintings, some mentioned in the play, some not, and hung them all over the rehearsal hall," Crawford says. "It's very interesting to be immersed in that."
The play also called for immersion in the history of Orthodox Judaism. "How do you research a religion that has existed for thousands of years and understand it by opening night?" Crawford says. "Well, you can't. But that's what actors do: We're trying to find someone else's life."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.