By Ben Tinsley
TJP Staff Reporter
FORT WORTH — Representatives of Circle Theatre are working closely with members of the local Jewish community to perfect the details and nuances of “My Name is Asher Lev,” the Aaron Posner adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel about a boy whose passion to become a painter comes into direct conflict with his Hasidic upbringing.
The play, which runs Jan. 29 through March 7, is exclusive to Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre, 230 W. 4th Street. It is directed by Dr. Harry B. Parker, chairman of the theatre department at Texas Christian University, and stars Sam Swanson as Asher, David Coffee as The Men and Lisa Fairchild as The Women.
Rose Pearson, Circle Theatre’s executive director, said Rabbi Sidney Zimelman has agreed to coach the cast to ensure members stay faithful to the culture, and the spirit of both the play and the original book.
“It’s good to have someone who can check our research and make sure we have all the right information going in,” Pearson said.
Pearson said Maddie Lesnick, president of the Circle Theatre Board and a former president of Beth-El Congregation, recommended approaching Zimelman, whose background is very similar to Asher Lev author Chaim Potok.
Pearson added that members of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth have bought out the theatre the evening of Feb. 28 for temple members. Remaining seats will be available to other members of the Jewish community. Those interested in purchasing tickets for the evening should contact the Beth-El office at 817-332-7141.
Running 90 minutes with no intermission, the play follows (in the words of Circle Theatre) “the journey of a young Jewish painter who is torn between his Hassidic upbringing and his desperate need to fulfill his artistic promise.
“When his talent threatens to destroy his relationship with his parents, young Asher realizes he must make a difficult choice between art and faith. This stirring adaptation of a modern classic presents a heartbreaking and triumphant vision of what it means to be an artist.”
According to Dr. Parker, the production is a memory play, meaning the audience will experience the past as recalled by the narrator, which presents certain challenges for the performing cast.
“A memory play is not specifically realistic,” he said. “The character is about 30 but is playing scenes in which he is 6, 7, 12 and 15-years-old. He is bouncing around in time and in his memory. So we want a specific cultural setting that presents what is happening in an artistically truthful way.”
Dr. Parker said in this regard, accurate pronunciations of Hebrew phrases and Yiddish words become very important.
“We want to suggest the appropriate culture,” he said. “We want how they react to be realistic.”
Zimelman, meanwhile, spoke to the cast and did a Skype interview with playwright Aaron Posner early last week. As Zimelman explained to them, he was a budding young artist himself and completely understands the struggle that character Asher Lev goes through.
“Rabbi Zimelman is very accomplished and was told when he went into yeshiva ‘no more art,’’’ Lesnick said. “It’s difficult when anyone with a special commitment and talent doesn’t have the support of his family and his community.”
Zimelman agreed wholeheartedly. Like Asher Lev, he said, he at one point wanted to be an artist and spent much time working on his art.
This didn’t sit well with his father, who had sent him away to study Torah. His father forbade him to continue.
Zimelman complied. But deep down, he said, he always wanted to become a rabbi.
Also, Zimelman said he personally knew Potok, who died in 2002 at age 73.
“He was a member of my congregation in Flatbush [Brooklyn] in 1965,” the Zimelman said. “I went to school with his brother and we had similar interests.”
The director said he and members of the cast have read the novel and have extracted nuances from the core work they are working into the play.
“I read the book and am currently reading the sequel, ‘The Gift of Asher Lev,’ ” Dr. Parker said. “It is a treasure trove of background information. The novel itself is longer and more complete than this 90-minute stage version and there are times when something happens in the novel the adapter didn’t have time to work into the stage version. But it helps the way we approach a scene or cultural moment. Rabbi Zimelman helps us with that by sharing the experiences of his personal life — those parallels with Asher Lev.”
Ultimately, Pearson said the cast is working off an incredible script for this opportunity. They are the only theater in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex allowed to use the script.
“We feel very fortunate we were selected to do it because I know a lot of theaters wanted it,” she said.
To inquire about the play, visit http://circletheatre.com/shows/asher_lev.