TimeLine Theatre Company at Stage 773. By Chaim Potok. Adapted by Aaron Posner. Directed by Kimberly Senior. With Alex Weisman, Lawrence Grimm, Danica Monroe. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
The protagonist of Chaim Potok's 1972 novel is a young member of Brooklyn's Hasidic community who also happens to be an artistic prodigy—two aspects of Asher's identity that co-exist uneasily in the story's 1950s setting. Asher's father, who travels Europe working for the rebbe, considers his son's artistic studies a distraction from his Jewish ones. His appeasing mother, grieving the loss of her beloved brother while he too was travelling for the rebbe, is caught between the two.
The rebbe, recognizing irrefutable talent, decrees that Asher will study with Jacob Kahn, a well-known painter and non-practicing Jew. As Asher learns from the master, he begins to feel himself brushing against the constraints of his ultra-conservative religious tradition; when he finally makes his big splash, it's by showing a work reveals his truth via imagery that's a direct insult to his community.
I believe there's perhaps more to it in Potok's book, but that's the gist of it as streamlined for the stage by writer Aaron Posner in this 2009 adaptation. Posner largely preserves the novel's first-person point-of-view, having the adult Asher (Alex Weisman, in a nicely turned performance) narrate to us while stepping in and out of scenes as his younger self. The adult characters are divided among one male and one female actor, here with Larry Grimm portraying Asher's father, Aryeh, Uncle Yaakov, the rebbe and Kahn, and Danica Monroe essaying Asher's mother, Rivkeh, and an influential gallery owner.
The narration is a valid choice to preserve the spirit of Potok's work, and considering that the adaptation was a commission from Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company, it may have even been a directive. Yet onstage it feels limiting, putting Asher at too much of an emotional remove from what he's showing us of his life; the telling can feel clinical, and the limitations placed by the cast-size choice make the story feel smaller than we can sense it yearning to be.
Coming in Chicago so soon on the heels of another Posner adaptation, the spirited Stupid Fucking Bird, Asher Lev can't help but feel unimaginative in comparison. (One smart thing Posner does, imagination-wise: He decrees that we must never see Asher's art, since nothing would be as impressive as what we imagine for ourselves—so the rear wall of Brian Sidney Bembridge's set piles up with blank pages and pristine white canvasses as Asher's artistry grows.)
Still, Kimberly Senior and her cast do well by the material they're given. Senior adds an onstage trio of musicians to play an original score by Andrew Hansen, mixing styles from Yiddish folk to bebop, but otherwise the director keeps things unadorned. And Weisman, though he interacts more with us than with the other characters onstage, displays a compelling leading-man presence. He's slowly but surely making his name one to remember.