To Asher Lev, painting is a religion.
There’s a problem, though. He has a religion already.
“My Name Is Asher Lev” — adapted, seven years ago, by Aaron Posner, from the 1972 Chaim Potok novel of the same name, and now playing at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick — follows its title character, a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn, from his 1950s childhood to his young adulthood. The young Asher loves to paint, but denies his own gift for a while: his family wants him to paint birds and flowers, “to make the world pretty,” but he doesn’t want to, because the world isn’t pretty. But eventually he finds his way, and becomes a great, or at least promising, artist.
It’s not an easy road. Though he never renounces his faith, his devout parents don’t understand, and can’t support, his desire to follow a path that has its own set of values and traditions — ones that sometime conflict with the ones instilled in them by Judaism. Meanwhile, another father figure comes into Asher’s a life, a free-thinking and quite successful artist named Jacob Kahn. Asher ultimately has to make a choice.
The play is a profound exploration of what it means to be a Jew, an artist, and a member of a family — and how, sadly, for the title character, being all three at the same time causes inevitable difficulties. As the title implies, it’s about establishing your own identity, and it has a certain timelessness. This is enhanced by designer R. Michael Miller’s set, which is largely bare except for some massive columns that look like they’re made of stone; these make it appear like the action is unfolding in an ancient temple, or an airy museum.
There are only three actors, and all do well with the chameleon-like changes demanded of them. Miles G. Jackson, as Asher, has to take his character from childhood to adulthood; it’s no easy task to seem like you’re 6 years old when you’re really an adult, but Jackson makes it work. Bob Ari has a somewhat easier task, as there’s a similar kindness, as well as a similar stubbornness, to the characters he plays (Asher’s father, Kahn, and the rabbi). Lena Kaminsky plays Asher’s loving but also haunted mother, as well as a sophisticated gallery owner, and a model who poses for Asher semi-nude.
It’s a serious play, though not without humor — and a playful kind of charm, from time to time. Definitely a memorable evening overall, and highly recommended
“My Name Is Asher Lev” is at the George Street Playhouse through May 1. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.