If GableStage's production of My Name is Asher Lev is a triumph - and this weekend's opening-night reaction seemed to suggest it is - then it's a subtle victory, a slow creep toward transcendence. The atmosphere is often low-lit and lugubrious. There are occasional moments of levity, but the tone and pace are funereal, with scenes punctuated by plaintive string music that seems to weep with the main character. It has the feel of Important Art from the very first moment, but a sense of urgency is largely absent, ditto catharses.
If this production feels especially buttoned-down, it's at least partially inherent in the source material. My Name is Asher Lev is a memory play about religious orthodoxy, modern art, and the incompatibility of these two concepts, adapted by Aaron Posner from a best-selling tome by the author and rabbi Chaim Potok. Asher (Etai BenShlomo) narrates the action from his perch as a young artist from a Hassidic Brooklyn family, taking us back to his first drawings as a 7-year-old and gradually moving toward the present, where his controversial paintings have become beautiful and blasphemous, celebrated and degraded. Along the way, his passion for art -- a world described to him as "goyish and pagan" -- constantly confronts his heritage, with his parents, Aryeh and Rivkeh (Avi Hoffman and Laura Turnbull), all but disowning him over his paintings of nudes, his representations of Christian iconography, and the other sacrilegious images he puts to canvas.
If some of the script feels dissonant and arch - "Please do not deprive me of this, my husband," is a tough line for anyone to sell - the poetry in Potok's prose powerfully hugs the coveted border between the specific and the universal, particularly when delivered by BenShlomo in a deeply felt and compassionate performance rich in nuance. When he takes us back to age 7, or 11, or 13, we suddenly buy him as a boy of those ages, thanks to seemingly invisible changes in body positioning and tone. Hoffman and Turnbull provide more than capable support as his parents and a number of ancillary roles; Hoffman's characters range from slightly Jewish to extremely Jewish, and it's hard to fathom any other South Florida actor imbuing these characters with such understanding. You could argue that these performances fit into certain comfort zones offering little we haven't seen before from both of these actors before, but they provide the solid foundation onto which BenShlomo can flourish.
Lyle Baskin's set, centered with the Levs' living room, is an appropriately traditional construction of rustic wood with a central skylight divided into squares that suggest, for Asher, a life of grids and patterns, and musty monotone walls - a life any artist would want to break from. The skylight also acts as a lush playground for lighting designer Jeff Quinn, who colors the action in shades of red, blue, violet and other tones to match the play's shifting textures.
These choices echo the theme of an artist's inner emotions brewing just under a surface of constriction, and director Joseph Adler's staging also seems drawn from classical art - the way he positions Hoffman and Turnbull gazing out their window in still-life compositions, frozen in time on the canvas of life. Like the show itself, it's both lovely and, it must be said, a bit languorous.
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My Name is Asher Lev runs through Dec. 22 at GableStage, located at 1200 Anastasia Ave. in Coral Gables. Tickets cost $40-$55. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org.
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