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Review: 'My Name Is Asher Lev' a moving struggle between art, tradition

From left, Georgina McKee, Brian Webb Russell and Chris Crawford in My Name Is Asher Lev.

American Stage

From left, Georgina McKee, Brian Webb Russell and Chris Crawford in My Name Is Asher Lev.

American Stage's production of My Name Is Asher Lev is a moving family drama, set firmly in a specific time, place and culture but universal in its evocation of the ties that bind parents and children, and the pain of cutting them. It's also a showcase for fine performances by three actors, playing a total of eight characters.

The play, written by Aaron Posner, is adapted from Chaim Potok's semi-autobiographical 1972 novel of the same name, set in Brooklyn in the 1950s. From a book teeming with a whole community of characters, Posner has sculpted a streamlined study of one young man's struggle to fulfill his gift of artistic talent.

My Name Is Asher Lev is a memory play, with the title character, a successful painter in his mid 20s, recounting how he discovered his passion and how it fractured his family. As Asher, Chris Crawford is on stage throughout the 185-minute play and must portray his character from age 6 to early 20s.

Director T. Scott Wooten draws from Crawford a subtle, effective performance. Simple shifts in tone and posture sketch the character's different ages rather than painting them broadly. We see Asher as a boy carried away with the joy of drawing, only to be brought up short by the disapproval of his father, a Hasidic Jew whose job is traveling the world as a representative of the Rebbe, a spiritual leader.

At first Aryeh Lev simply objects to his son's drawing when he should be studying. But when 12-year-old Asher starts visiting museums, and his favorite subjects — nudes and crucifixions — emerge, the tension builds. As Asher matures and seriously pursues a career as a painter, father and son collide. Caught in the middle is Asher's long-suffering but strong mother, Rivkeh.

Aryeh is played with dignity and occasional fire by Brian Webb Russell, who also deftly portrays Asher's gregarious Uncle Yitzchok, the wise Rebbe and Asher's artistic mentor, the sculptor Jacob Kahn, who encourages Asher after his father rejects him and opens another world to the boy.

Georgina McKee makes Rivkeh a deeply touching figure; she struggles not only with the rift between her equally beloved husband and son, but with the sudden death of her only brother. If Asher's father is his artistic adversary, his mother is his tragic muse. McKee transforms herself for one scene as Anna, an art collector as modern and jaunty as Rivkeh is traditional and somber; she also portrays the first nude model a flustered Asher faces in the flesh.

Adrin Erra Puente's understated but carefully detailed costumes delineate the various characters played by Russell and McKee. The simple set, dominated by a large window and scattered with easels and empty frames that leave Asher's work to an audience's imaginations, was designed by Jerid Fox; the quietly effective lighting is by Megan Byrne.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

.if you go

My Name Is Asher Lev continues through Aug. 25 at American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. Brief nudity. Tickets $29-$59, americanstage.org or (727) 823-7529.

Review: 'My Name Is Asher Lev' a moving struggle between art, tradition 07/22/13 [Last modified: Monday, July 22, 2013 5:57pm]
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