By Ben Tinsley
TJP Staff Reporter
FORT WORTH — In the words of acclaimed author Chaim Potok, true Art (with a capital “A”) is a SCREAM — located somewhere deep inside an artist, struggling to get to the surface.
To be legitimate, art has to reflect the truth — regardless of whom that truth may hurt.
The idea of the cost of art — especially to those who love the artist — is explored at length during Circle Theatre’s current production of “My Name Is Asher Lev” — the Aaron Posner adaptation of Potok’s eponymous 1972 novel. This 90-minute, no-intermission production runs through March 7 and is exclusive throughout the Metroplex to Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre, 230 W. 4th Street.
The story revolves around Asher Lev (at various ages) and his family, who live in 1950s, postwar Brooklyn. It is a time when Josef Stalin was persecuting Jews in the Soviet Union. Young Asher Lev, driven by his artistic impulses, challenges the conventions and convictions of his faith-driven parents and community members, all of whom struggle with understanding his art.
Those who attend the play can expect to see powerful performances by a versatile, three-person cast and strong insight into both Chassidic Jewish culture and the culture of art.
During the show’s opening night (Saturday, Jan. 31), cast members Sam Swanson’s, David Coffee’s and Lisa Fairchild’s formidable interpretations of classic Chaim Potok characters elicited a standing ovation from the audience.
This is a “memory play” during which the audience experiences the past as recalled by the narrator. It uses minimal props and is well-suited to the intimate setting of Circle Theatre.
The production is directed by Dr. Harry B. Parker, chairman of the theatre department at Texas Christian University. As director, Parker lives up to his previously stated goal to stay faithful to the original book, the culture, and the spirit of the play — while keeping the story understandable and relatable to a universal audience.
In the play, Asher continually clashes with his father, who serves as their leader “the Rebbe” bringing the teachings and practice of their sect to other Jews around the world.
Asher’s mother — traumatized by the death of her brother when Asher was young — is caught directly in the center of the conflict between father and son.
Actor Sam Swanson portrays Asher Lev all the way from child to young adult — easily transitioning to each phase of Lev’s life. The sincerity and earnestness Swanson brings to Lev make his continued clashes with his parents over his art all the more heart-wrenching.
ASHER: “It’s not a pretty world, Papa.”
PAPA: “I’ve noticed.”
Actors Coffee and Fairchild are riveting as Asher Lev’s parents but also shine in multiple other roles that offer a backdrop to this tale.
Coffee, for instance, transitions effortlessly from Asher Lev’s father to his short-lived uncle, to the community leader the Rebbe (leader of the Ladover Chassidic Jews) to veteran artist (and non-observant Jew) Jacob Kahn, Asher’s artist mentor and friend.
Fairchild morphs from Asher Lev’s mother to Anna Schaeffer, the sophisticated owner of the art gallery where Asher’s art is displayed, to the model upon whom he bases his first nude painting to another “free spirit” woman he meets.
To stay faithful to the culture and the spirit of the play and the original book, Maddie Lesnick, president of the Circle Theatre Board and a former president of Beth-El Congregation, recommended approaching Rabbi Sidney Zimelman to coach the cast on the nuances of Chassidic Jewish culture.
Rabbi Zimelman agreed to help.
His background, incidentally, is very similar to that of Asher Lev author Chaim Potok. Rabbi Zimelman said he personally knew Chaim Potok, who died in 2002 at age 73.
Several members of the Metroplex Jewish community, incidentally plan to attend the play Feb. 28. Rose Pearson, Circle Theatre’s executive director, has said members of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth have bought out the theatre that evening 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.
Those who wish to inquire about the play can visit http://circletheatre.com/shows/asher_lev.
Again, “My Name Is Asher Lev” may have some audience members wondering: If Art is Truth, then what is the cost of this truth?
The answer might just break your heart.
Veteran journalist Ben Tinsley is the staff reporter for the Texas Jewish Post. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by cell phone at (702) 524-3773. Tinsley can also be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/BenTinsley, Google at http://plus.google.com/+BenTinsley or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ben.tinsley.12.