“My Name Is Asher Lev,” on stage at Theatrical Outfit through September 16, is the story of a young Jewish artist from a Hasidic community caught between conflicting loyalties to the religious traditions of his parents and the traditions of artistic creation. As a developing artist, he’s called upon to consider and respond to the subjects that great artists (his found community) have depicted before him: female nudes, crucifixions, pietas.
It’s a simple but inherently dramatic story of conflict, and with an excellent lead and two strong supporting actors, the Outfit’s production is one of the most potent plays to be produced on an Atlanta stage this year. It’s an auspicious start to a new season for Theatrical Outfit.
The play is based on a 1972 autobiographical novel by Chaim Potok, which was adapted for the stage in 2009 by playwright Aaron Posner. Posner wisely pulls the story into tight focus: there are just three actors in the show. Nick Arapoglou narrates and plays the central character Asher Lev, and the young actor is called on to carry so much that the show is almost like a long dramatic monologue in which other actors occasionally appear.
Arapoglou has a plain-spoken, direct way of addressing the audience. It’s crucial to our sense of connection to the character, especially for those who may be unfamiliar with the details of the traditions of Lev’s community. Through his transparency and accessibility, Arapoglou makes the audience see how the character’s very personal struggle to assert his identity is actually a very common, if not totally universal, one.
The remaining roles are all played by Brian Kurlander and Lane Carlock. They primarily appear as Asher’s parents. But there are also parts for the Levs’ Rebbe, along with a mentoring artist and no-nonsense gallery owner. Such a small cast in multiple parts sounds as if it could be jarring, but it’s handled so smoothly that at one point I had to remind myself that the prickly, brassy gallery owner and Lev’s meek, modest mother were being played by the same woman.
Especially touching is Kurlander’s depiction of the dual authority figures of the Rebbe and Jacob Kahn, the artistic mentor. The Rebbe is an intimidating figure of few words, but his advice to Asher is gentle, almost Zen-like. He understands the difficult situation that Asher is in and also wisely grasps that there will be no easy solution. Kurlander fleshes out a fascinating Kahn, who, like the Rebbe, understands right from the beginning that there will be no easy accommodation between the worlds that Asher must navigate.
Lee Maples’ stage is gorgeously minimalist, serving as multiple settings. It’s a Jewish household in Brooklyn, a Rebbe’s office, an artist’s studio, a museum and so on. It matches the sleek, spare, crystal-clear aesthetic that director Mira Hirsch has brought to the 90-minute one-act play.
“It is absurd to apologize for a mystery,” Asher says at the opening. The Theatrical Outfit’s production of “My Name Is Asher Lev” certainly makes no apologies but dives right in to the conflicts between faith and art, the community and the individual. These are certainly some of the most compelling and heart-wrenching mysteries that can ever be brought to light in the theater.