For millennia, both art and religion have been the focus of some of the theater’s best pieces, however, rarely has one play combined and commented on them both as elegantly as the Theatrical Outfit’s brilliant production of Aaron Posner’s My Name is Asher Lev. This riveting work, directed by Mira Hirsch (the founder and sole Artistic Director of the now defunct Jewish Theatre of the South), follows the artistic and religious journey of Hasidic Jew Asher Lev (played by Suzi Bass Award-winner Nick Arapoglou) from the confusion of a conflicted child prodigy to the personal torment of an artistic genius.
Arapoglou is masterful in the titular role. While never leaving the stage during this 90-minute memory play, he artfully takes the audience inside the mind of a genius struggling to justify the two seemingly conflicting truths of his life, his G0d-given gift and his dedication to his family and faith. In this tour-de-force performance, Arapoglou humanizes the pains, frustrations, and exhilarations that often torment great artists, and, in turn, lead to great art. The 27-year-old Arapoglou’s powerful performance is truly revelatory; it not only reveals insights into the mind of an artistic master, but it reveals the full breadth of one of Atlanta’s most talented young performers.
While Brian Kurlander plays all of the show’s other male roles, he is most spectacular as Asher’s devout father, Aryeh, and Asher’s non-observant artistic mentor, Jacob Kahn. In these two roles, Kurlander personifies the internal conflict pulling Asher in two separate directions; religion and art. Asher’s father travels the world spreading the Jewish faith, but struggles to reconcile how the religion is practiced in his own home. Aryeh views his son’s passion for art as a distraction from living a religious life, while Kahn views his pupil’s passion for art as a religion all its own. While Kurlander expertly performs both roles, he does so with an obvious affection and sympathy for each. His genuinely heartfelt approach to both characters results in performances that never comment on either man, but instead allow the audience to fully appreciate each for the uniquely convicted men that they are.
The final member of this three-person ensemble is Lane Carlock, who primarily plays Asher’s mother, Rivkeh. Often the peacekeeper between her husband and son, Rivkeh’s anguish, exacerbated by the tragic death of her brother, is palpable in Carlock’s performance. Rivkeh’s journey is one that sees her battle loneliness, depression, and a motherly struggle to accept a son she doesn’t understand. Throughout it all, Carlock brings a weary strength to the role that exemplifies the strain of being pulled between love and responsibility for so many years.
While all three of the show’s actors are breath-taking in their roles, the true star of the show is Posner’s beautiful script (adapted from Chaim Potok’s 1972 classic coming-of-age novel) and Hirsch’s restrained direction. The story is told with such honesty (an important lesson that Asher learns from Kahn) that the audience’s hearts break right along with those of the Lev family. While the subject matter is often profound, there are moments of genuine laughter that come not from punch lines, but from the human truth found in the words and performances.
The simple, yet evocative set design by Lee Maples masterfully combines one powerful image, a giant scale, with a quiet understanding of the story that takes place on the stage. Additionally, Chris Crawford’s somber lighting design at times seems to be a fourth member of the cast; subtly moving around the stage, leading the way to yet another profound moment.
My Name is Asher Lev at the Theatrical Outfit is the first must-see show of the 2012-2013 season. Running through September 16, tickets are available for purchase at 1-877-725-8849 or by visiting Theatrical Outfit’s website.
– Matt Tamanini