In Chaim Potok's "My Name Is Asher Lev," a young Hasidic Jew living in Brooklyn struggles to reconcile his stern religious upbringing with his quest to become a painter. In depicting an artist who suffers with almost Christlike passion, the novel has acquired a devoted and universal following and recently inspired Philadelphia playwright and director Aaron Posner to conjure a theatrical adaptation.
Directed by Mira Hirsch at Theatrical Outfit, Posner's "Asher Lev" is a noble investigation of parental pressure, youthful angst and sensitivity and matters of self-identity. Handsomely designed and played by a top-notch cast that digs deep into the heart of Potok's tale, the Outfit production is a fine showcase for Posner's economical storytelling style.
Nick Arapoglou, a young actor best known for his work in musical comedy ("Avenue Q," "Spring Awakening"), makes for a boyish and inquiring Asher Lev, who begins to draw and question the world at age 6 — much to his parents' chagrin. Brian Kurlander and Lane Carlock portray all the adult men and women in the story. Thus, the strikingly beautiful Carlock has to make herself to look like Asher's dour mother — as well as his first nude model and a dismissive New York gallery owner — while Kurlander brings his chameleonic gifts and authentic accents to the roles of Asher's father, uncle, artistic mentor and the greatly feared but ultimately sympathetic Jewish leader known as the Rebbe.
In a delightful sequence, the lusty, cigar-chomping uncle tells his nephew about Chagall and Picasso, and the young boy's response is that "Pablo Picasso" sounds "round like a pickle." I only wish that there was more such lightness in this drama, which leans too heavily on its essential conflict (religion vs. art) and too often uses a turgid past-tense voice to describe the narrative. (The plodding one act clocks in at about 90 minutes but feels a bit longer.)
Arapoglou is onstage for most of the evening, and whatever the material's shortcomings, his energy and charisma is undeniable. Easily the most entertaining actor in the group, Kurlander displays a keen connection with every character he inhabits.Carlock, who is frequently required to play the kind of glamorous blonds admired by Hitchcock, proves her versatility here as a gloomy, plain-looking mother who must wrestle with her own demons.
Designer Lee Maples creates a lovely set dominated by a towering sun-dial-like sculpture and panels depicting little white clouds. But the audience is left to imagine the nudes and crucifixion scenes that are so shocking to Asher's parents and his public. Chris Crawford's lighting is sensitive, but prematurely dials down near the end. And Linda Patterson seems to have the most fun coming up with fashions to match Kurlander's vivid characters.
In the end, "Asher Lev" is more elegant to look at than emotionally eloquent.
"My Name Is Asher Lev"
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. matinees Aug. 30, Sept. 2, Sept. 8-9 and Sept. 15-16. Through Sept. 16. $15-$4o. Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. N.W., Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849;theatricaloutfit.org
Bottom line: Solid, though a little one-note.