To some, religion is a kind of art. To others, art a kind of religion.
But to a tortured few who live in the uncomfortable space between the two, both are true. And each is impossible to reconcile with the other.
That charged space is where we encounter Asher Lev, the protagonist of the Jewish Repertory Theatre’s somber production of “My Name is Ahser Lev,” the popular Chaim Potok novel adapted into a one-act play by Aaron Posner.
Asher’s life, compressed into 90 weighty minutes in a production whose humor even seems to sag with pathos, amounts to a series of impossible choices between the strict demands of his orthodox faith and the irrepressible desires of his unorthodox soul.
As the play opens, we meet 12-year-old Asher in the small Brooklyn apartment he shares with his parents, who have envisioned for him a life of fidelity to Hasidic beliefs and traditions. His mother (Josie DiVincenzo) subtly encourages his artistic talents, while his father (Tom Zindle) is so hard-wired into his religious mission and that he cannot conceive of a life for his son that is any different than his own.
But Asher, played with finely tuned intensity by Adam Yellen, envisions a different kind of life for himself. His preternatural gift for drawing, which manifests itself at 6 years old, soon grows into an appetite for truth-telling that reaches far beyond the dictates of the Torah.
It leads him into the halls of the Brooklyn Museum, where to his parents’ horror he copies crucifixion scenes and female nudes, and eventually into the orbit of a great artist who warns him that a genuine commitment to art is akin to an outright rejection of faith. Or at least of a faith that forbids such things as immodest depictions of the female body, something Asher and his teacher see as central to the tradition of art-making in the 20th century.
While Posner’s adaptation stops short of being heavy-handed, it is nonetheless an emotionally taxing affair. While you can put Potok’s novel down and, say, watch an episode of “Friends” before diving back in, there is precious little relief comic or otherwise from the utterly serious subject matter of this narrative, which could use a bit more emphasis on its few lighter moments. To that end, Saul Elkin’s direction, Tom Makar’s somewhat overassertive sound design and Nathan Elsener’s beautifully gloomy if claustrophobic set could each benefit from a lighter touch.
Things got off to a bit of a rocky start on opening night, when a medical emergency in the audience delayed the show by an hour. Once things got going, the chemistry – volatile and otherwise – between Aher and his parents seemed to lack the final few layers of authenticity that are likely to emerge after a few more performances.
Even so, the production is sure to prove rewarding for anyone who has ever had an internal debate between the expectations of a religious upbringing and the unwieldy needs of an artistic soul.
In “My Name is Asher Lev,” as in life, that choice and the pain it creates is both impossible and inevitable.
3 stars (Out of four)
Drama presented through Nov. 15 in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville. Tickets are $10 to $38. Call 688-4114 ext. 391 or visit jewishrepertorytheatre.com.