Asher Lev is constitutionally unable to compromise tradition. His immediate world is one of extremes, a strictly observant Jewish home guided unvaryingly by the laws of Torah, devoted to serving the Master of the Universe, and averse to the “sitra achra,” the dark side of shame and blasphemy in the Chasidic kaballah to which Asher’s family subscribes.
His imaginative world may not be as codified or exact, but it is just as unyielding, and he enters it naturally, as opposed to by direction, habit, or training. Asher is a gifted artist, not only able to draw with accuracy and dexterity but able to see and capture the essence of subjects, even some his religion abhors and that skirt his father’s idea of the forbidden.
In neither world can Asher lie or break with the traditions of history. Asher is a purist. He will follow the tenets of Judaism with willing, uncomplaining discipline. He must also paint with the passion, intensity, texture, and indifference to risk with which he is capable.
Asher cannot stint on expressing himself honestly, and wouldn’t desire to if he could. Even after his unswerving integrity leads to a controversial pair of oils, “The Brooklyn Crucifixions,” that comment graphically on his parents’ religiosity and cause a family schism.
Asher’s dilemma is not so much a struggle to exist in two equally demanding, severely judgmental spheres. He accepts both. Asher’s quandary is finding tolerance in one or the other domain as he scrupulously adheres to the principles of both. He can marry art with religion, but the minute he inadvertently offends one, he risks alienation from its practitioners. This is particularly agonizing as religion will claim a moral high ground while the art world insists Asher bare his soul with the candor that has earned him praise and fame.
Aaron Posner’s dramatization of novelist Chaim Potok’s best-selling “My Name Is Asher Lev” makes Asher’s conundrum immediate. From his youth, he has to justify his art to his parents and listen to teachers as they tell him he must understand Medieval and Renaissance religious art, and the New Testament texts from which it derives, if he wants to express with verity in his own era — post-World War II America.
Posner’s script deftly cuts to a boy, eventually a man, who conforms to most lessons he receives from either camp but is isolated because each wants its orthodoxy to be supreme and demands to be satisfied above the other. Asher’s father eschews art as “narrischkeit” (foolishness) and recommends he concentrate on Torah scholarship while his art friends tease him about his forelocks and don’t invite him to meals because they have no intention of respecting Jewish dietary laws. Asher questions. He will flout his father’s dicta that he forget art, and especially Christian symbolism. But he is basically a good boy who honors Jewish and artistic tradition but is excoriated by those who want all or nothing.
Jim Jack conveys all of this in an absorbing production of “My Name Is Asher Lev” for New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse. His main asset is the glum, austere aspect Miles G. Jackson maintains in the title role.
Jackson’s Asher is a boy and man without joy or obvious graces. He does not embrace life or seem to seek a wide experience of it. He is obsessed with drawing, and mastering different aspects of composition, including anatomy and religious symbolism, to an extent that makes art his only concentration and sole outlet.
Asher is also a keen observer. His gift is to put the emotions, challenges, and inner life of a subject is his or her face or posture. He is especially astute at drawing his mother, whom he has studied from his earliest years.
Jackson seems precocious while playing Asher at age three and callow and unworldly when assaying him in his 20s. There’s always a drudging melancholy to Jackson’s performance. His Asher is more driven to paint than exhilarated by it. On the outside, Asher is awkward and guileless, but with a brush in his hand, he shows an understanding of human thought, behavior, and condition that brands him a master.
Jackson speaks in a discontented whine that is only slightly more pronounced when Asher is a child. He exudes someone who is tormented and perplexed, a person who doesn’t fit in anywhere but is motivated by his prodigious talent and unquenchable urge to create.
Jackson is off-putting at first because he is so unchildlike. Eventually you see the boldness in his keeping Asher so unlovable and remote. This is a person more confined by his talent than his father is by his religion. Jackson’s distance makes you more empathetic to Asher, who could use some kindness.
Lena Kaminsky also elicits empathy as Asher’s unfulfilled and rigidly dutiful mother, a woman blamed any time Asher goes astray by drawing nudes or Jesus and who is granted no outlet of her own.
Bob Ari is excellent as both Asher’s uncomprehending father who is decent within his religiosity but intolerant about Asher broaching certain subjects and unconvinced art has any value, and as Jacob Kahn, Asher’s inflexible art mentor. The look on Ari’s face as Asher’s father sees “The Brooklyn Crucifixions” is chilling and heartbreaking.
About the only cavil about Jack’s production is confusion about Asher’s exact ages in the first scenes of the play, especially at a time his mother suffers a nervous breakdown. The design of the show meets all needs, R. Michael Miller’s cement pillars neatly representing gallery or temple walls.
My Name Is Asher Lev, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, May 1. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., and Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. $25 to $74. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.