Faith, art collide in TimeLine's 'Asher Lev'
There's a price to be paid for self-expression and for pursuing one's calling. No one knows that better than Asher Lev, the titular character in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago premiere of "My Name is Asher Lev," a portrait of an emerging artist adapted from Chaim Potok's 1972 novel by writer Aaron Posner.
In this poignant coming-of-age tale, budding painter Asher (an earnest, curious Alex Weisman) attempts to reconcile his Jewish faith with his "unique and disquieting gift" which -- in Asher's expression -- runs counter to the Hasidic tradition held dear by his parents (Lawrence Grimm and Danica Monroe, who play multiple roles). This puts young Asher in a terrible position. In remaining true to himself and his vision, he opposes the people he loves best and the community in which he has spent his life. But denying or compromising his artistic inclinations (however they manifest themselves), means betraying himself, which is something no true artist can do.
So Asher has a decision to make. And while his choice is never really in doubt, the journey by which he arrives at it is compelling thanks to Weisman's intelligent, emotional, expertly contained performance.
We meet Asher as a young boy, living in post World War II Brooklyn with his parents. To his religious father (played with stern surety by Grimm), making art is foolishness. Less dismissive is Asher's wary, embattled mother. She's played with concern and affection by Monroe, whose weariness conveys the enormous strain felt by a woman caught between her husband and son.
More supportive is the unrepentant rebel artist Jacob Kahn, played with ferocious passion by Grimm. A nonreligious Jew, Jacob serves as mentor to Asher, imparting to the teenage prodigy the hard truths about the consequences of his choices, warning him that "the pursuit of art can eat your whole life."
"Be a great painter, Asher," Jacob advises. "It's the only justification for all the pain you're about to cause."
Besides canny casting, Kimberly Senior's affecting, forthright production benefits from the director's clear eye and sense of balance. Everything about this show is credible, from the fervent father-son battles to the quietly devastating penultimate scene.
Composer Andrew Hanson earns kudos for his reflective, unobtrusive and resonant musical accompaniment, beautifully played by clarinetist Adam DeGroot, cellist Merrick Jones and violinist Elena Spiegel.
That said, much of the success of TimeLine's production has to do with Weisman, whose Chicago area debut came five years ago in TimeLine's acclaimed production of "The History Boys," which earned the then-Northwestern University undergrad a Joseph Jefferson Award.
Weisman, who plays Asher with a combination of defiance and fear, is even better now.
Watching him these last few years on Chicago area stages, including First Folio's in Oak Brook, I'm reminded of Chicago's 1990s alternative scene and what it must have been like for fans of Liz Phair, Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins, crowding into clubs to hear them play. Those fans knew there was something special about those musicians.
It's like that with Weisman. Where he'll be in five or 10 years, who knows. But he's here now. Catch him while you can.
"My Name is Asher Lev"★ ★ ★
Location: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. (773) 327-5252 or timelinetheatre.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 18. Also 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16, Oct. 7 and 14
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Metered street parking and valet parking
Rating: For most audiences