Chicago Theatre Review
I’ve Gotta Be Me
My Name is Asher Lev – Timeline Theatre
Most young people reach adolescence conflicted by whether to live their lives the way their parents dictate or to follow their hearts, pursuing their own goals and dreams. When the child finds himself at odds with not only his family but also his religious upbringing the issue of independence becomes more complicated. The popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof” teaches how time-honored traditions provide strength, stability and comfort in a continually changing world, particularly within the Jewish religion. This becomes the heart of this play: whether to stay true to oneself or bend to the will of the parents and their religious traditions.
Based upon rabbi Chaim Potok’s popular 1972 novel, playwright Aaron Posner worked closely with the author’s widow to dramatize his story of a young man struggling to follow his artistic calling. Posner, who also successfully adapted Potok’s novel The Chosen for the theatre, saw this play run successfully for ten months in New York. The production earned both the John Gassner Award and the Outer Circle Critic’s Award for Best New Off-Broadway play. TimeLine kicks off their 18th season with the play’s Chicago premier.
The story spans the ‘50’s and early 1960’s opening with the 22-year-old title character speaking directly to the audience. Asher Lev reflects upon his strict Hasidic Jewish upbringing and how he continually fought against his religious beliefs, his parents’ demands and his own insecurities to become the celebrated artist he knew was inside. The play then goes back in time to when, as a six-year-old boy, Asher was becoming obsessed with drawing and coloring. Throughout his developmental years we see how art and creativity drives this brilliant child to rebel. We also get to know his parents. Asher’s father is a strongly-devoted man who spent much of his life serving his religion’s leader, the Rebbe. Often traveling to Europe, Aryeh Lev brought the teachings, comfort and strength of his sect to Jews persecuted by Stalin. Ironically Aryeh wasn’t able to provide these things to his own son. Asher’s father, like other Hasidic Jews, saw absolutely no value in art. Asher’s mother Rivkeh spends her life torn by the conflict between her husband and son. In an attempt to depict the anguish Asher saw inside his mother, he paints his magnum opus, which his parents discover at a New York gallery. This provides the final blow to Asher’s rocky relationship with his family and it drives him deeper into his artistry.
Kimberly Senior has done a magnificent job of bringing Posner’s adaptation to life in Chicago. While her production focuses primarily upon her conflicted title character, Ms. Senior divides her vision nicely between the other men and women who share Asher’s story. Ms. Senior paces the play very nicely and stages her production within the audience’s realm. Working collaboratively, she encourages scenic and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembidge to create detail within simplicity. His simple Brooklyn apartment setting is dominated by a large staircase that takes audiences to a second-level balcony, allowing us to see into Asher’s inner sanctum cluttered with the tools of his art. Otherwise, his set includes only a round, wooden dining table and chairs set beneath two windows that look out onto the street. With Bembridge’s command of lighting, the audience moves smoothly between the now and then. Employing composer Andrew Hansen to create a klezmer-flavored soundtrack for the production, and played by three onstage musicians (Adam DeGroot on clarinet, Merrick Jones on cello and Elena Spiegel on violin), the look and sound of this play is perfect.
Young Alex Weisman, whose theatrical star began shining brightly in TimeLine’s “History Boys,” is believable, captivating and commanding here as the tortured young artist. Whether delivering long passages of narration directly to the audience or sensitively portraying his character on his developmental journey from age six to manhood, Mr. Weisman continues to impress as one of Chicago’s finest actors. As the men in Asher’s life, including his strict father, Aryeh, his sympathetic uncle Yaakov, the wise Rebbe and Asher’s mentor, successful artist Jacob Kahn, TimeLine newcomer Lawrence Grimm flawlessly creates each distinct, unique personage with skill and feeling. Danica Monroe is equally successful bringing to life all the women in this story. Whether sensitively playing Rivkeh, Asher’s conflicted, long-suffering mother, Anna, the eccentric art gallery owner who supports Asher’s talents or Asher’s first nude model (in a delicate, tastefully handled scene), Ms. Monroe gives a solid performance.
There are many novels, plays and films that portray the voyage a young artist must often take to achieve independence and personal success. Adam Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel, brought to vivid life in a polished production by Kimberly Senior, paints a story of conflict, anguish and hope. Everyone, especially younger audiences, will identify with Asher’s struggle to follow his dream and be true to himself. As Jacob Kahn tells Asher, “As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing except to yourself and to the truth, as you see it.” TimeLine’s artists do just that.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 22-October 18 by TimeLine Theatre Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Stage 773 box office, by calling 773-327-5252 or by going to www.timelinetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.