Believing is art in My Name Is Asher Lev 

Chaim Potok's conflict between art and faith emerges poignantly at American Stage.

My Name Is Asher Lev is about a young man torn between the demands of his religion and the calling of his art.

In Aaron Posner’s fine adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel, the conflict is established almost immediately and then, over 85 minutes, parsed and re-parsed until there can finally be no question as to which course Asher will choose. Thanks to American Stage’s first-rate production — and the inspired acting of Chris Crawford, Georgina McKee and Brian Webb Russell — Asher’s dilemma is fascinating, meaningful, and deeply moving. Can he remain a traditional Hasidic Jew while painting crucifixions, nudes and representations of his tortured family? Is art, as one of his mentors tells him, the world of the goyim, and will he have to turn his back on his own upbringing if he wishes to succeed? I don’t know that Potok’s answer is definitive, but for Asher, at least, it’s convincing enough. Anyone who’s ever been poised between self and society will recognize its relevance.

The play is structured as a tour through Asher’s life, conducted by him and featuring the personages whose impact on his trajectory have been greatest. There are his parents — the father, a traveling ambassador for his Hasidic sect, and the mother, forever wounded by the untimely death of her beloved brother. There is the Rebbe who leads the Ladover hasids, and whose word in their Brooklyn community is final; and there is a gallery owner who is shocked to discover that an adolescent, and a religious one at that, created the brilliant canvases another artist shows her. And then there is that other artist — perhaps the most fascinating character after Asher himself — a non-observant Jew named Jacob Kahn who, on the recommendation of the rebbe, takes Asher as a protégé, and teaches him the degree to which artistic and personal integrity must coincide. There’s a lot more to the play: the mystery of Asher’s irrepressible talent, the conflict with his father (who sees his son’s urgings as coming from the demonic energies in the universe), and the question of his parent’s reaction when Asher paints a couple of canvases sure to challenge many of the values which the older couple holds sacred.

There’s also terrific acting, from Crawford as the play’s subject and guide, and from Russell and McKee in seven other roles. Crawford’s Asher is impeccable: he himself doesn’t understand how he happens to be so talented, or why he feels compelled to draw or paint everything he sees. Whether playing the artist as a child or as a young adult with his first exhibition, Crawford is ingenuous, driven, stubborn, and committed. Russell as all the other male characters is just as excellent. Persuasively pious as Asher’s father and as the Rebbe, he’s also delightful as Jacob Kahn, who tries to warn Asher away from an artist’s life, and then gives generously of his love and time when he sees that the young man isn’t to be dissuaded. McKee too is superb. As Asher’s mother, she’s old country devotion and anxiety in a headscarf; as aficionada Anna Schaeffer, she’s as American and worldly as a sizable money order. T. Scott Wooten’s staging is extraordinarily sensitive, and Jerid Fox’s set, part Asher’s home, part Jacob’s studio, is excellent. The expressive costumes are by Adrin Erra Puente.

I don’t think the choice between religion and art is an inevitable one. In literature, at least, there have been many religious artists — one thinks of the last century’s Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, S.Y. Agnon, Paul Claudel, and Francois Mauriac, just for starters. But it’s true that few traditionally Jewish visual artists come to mind, and Potok may be saying that the Christian tradition in Western painting makes uniquely challenging demands on a non-Christian. In any case, this play is intellectually and emotionally rewarding, worthy of anyone’s time, religious or secular. At the performance I attended, the actors were given a standing ovation. For once, it was well-deserved.

Two by Fay. Top Bay area actress, playwright and monologist Roxanne Fay (The Year of Magical Thinking) is presenting two of her plays Aug. 1-4 at the Studio@620, under the title Home Fires Burning. Both are about the need for home, with Fay featured in Paradise Whiskey and Betty-Jane Parks appearing in Everlasting Moon. Incidentally, this will be Parks’ last show in St. Pete before she moves to West Virginia (Fay calls Moon a “farewell gift”). Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 9 p.m. Friday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. The Studio is at 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $15-$20.

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