By STUART NULMAN
When Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev was published in 1972, it spent six months on the New York Times best seller list, and was widely praised by critics for its powerful, sensitive, moving story, especially, according to the Wall Street Journal, for its “vision of humanity, of religion, of art”.
It is within that spirit that the stage adaptation of Potok’s novel is being presented by the Segal Centre to open its 2016-2017 subscription season, and is playing there until October 2.
The story centres around Asher Lev (David Reale), a young observant Jew who lives in Brooklyn during the late 1940s and early 50s. Asher possesses a natural talent to draw and draw ell, and is eager to draw no matter what surface he finds, whether it be a stray piece of paper or the pages of a prayer book. In fact, he much rather do these drawings than devote his time to his scholarly and religious studies, which compels his mother (Ellen David) to encourage him to develop his talent, and infuriates his father (Alex Poch-Goldin), a travelling emissary for the Rebbe.
When Asher’s artistic talents are nurtured by veteran New York painter Jacob Kahn (also played by Poch-Goldin), he realizes that he has a future transcending his drawings onto canvas for the world to see. However, because the subject matter he paints (mainly nudes and crucifixions) goes against the principles of his faith, Asher is constantly torn to choose one aspect of life over the other: whether he should be a good Jew or a great artist.
The stage adaptation of “My Name is Asher Lev”, which is produced in conjunction with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, is quite faithful to Potok’s novel. It gives the audience a strong picture of how a religious person in modern times who possesses a rare artistic gift sometimes faces that difficult situation of choosing between their faith or their talent, and the long, tortuous road one travels to reach that important personal decision. David Reale is excellent in the title role, and has that uncanny ability to transform Asher from age 6 to 13 to 20 by simply putting on a vest or slightly changing the cadence of his voice. As well, special kudos go to his co-stars Alex Poch-Goldin and Ellen David for successfully accomplishing the difficult task of performing, respectively, all the other male and female roles (from Asher’s parents, to painter Jacob Kahn, to a haughty New York art gallery owner) and make it look not just so easy, but deliver compelling performances with each role they undertake. And Martin Ferland’s set design convincingly evokes the starkness and simplicity of both the Levs’ Brooklyn apartment and an artist’s studio around 65 years ago.
What a masterful way for the Segal Centre to start its 2016-2017 season. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call 514-739-7944, or go to www.segalcentre.org.