By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
photo by Ryan Fagan
Asher Lev the Jewish artist couldn't help himself. Even as a pre-school child in 1950s Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish community he was attracted to the agony of Christ's crucifixion, drawing precociously powerful pictures of Jesus' suffering on the cross copied from the Christian masters.
Asher Lev's conservative parents were shocked and sickened by their son's prodigious talents. Why does he keep drawing these horrible, disgusting pictures? Why can't he draw pretty pictures of birds and flowers?
“The world is ugly. It is not a pretty world,” said Asher Lev, scarcely a teenager. His father kept insisting Asher Lev must fight this ungodly urge, this abomination. He could stop if he wanted to, his father insisted.
This is the set-up for Live Theatre Workshop's convincing production of “My Name Is Asher Lev” written by Aaron Posner, adapted from the 1972 novel of the same name by Chaim Potok. The director is Amy Almquist.
In the title role and giving the performance of his life is Steve Wood, affecting an accent so the part has an even more heartfelt connection. Playing various ages of the artist as his inner struggle matures, Wood creates for us a kind of idealistic innocence that turns to extreme frustration.
This gift from God became a burden and was not appreciated by his Hasidic parents, nor by Asher Lev himself, who loved all the Jewish traditions in which he was raised.
Asher Lev thought he must be possessed. How could such a wondrous gift create such turmoil within his own soul? Was he one of God's cruel jokes?
The only other cast members are Carrie Hill, playing the boy's mother and several other women, with Art Almquist playing the boy's father and several other men.
One of those men is Jacob Kahn, a highly respected Jewish artist. Even more respected is the community's Rebbe. It is the Rebbe who calm's Asher Lev's angry father and shows Asher Lev's controversial paintings to Jacob Kahn.
These conversations between Wood's Asher Lev and Almquist playing the other men become lofty theater, a fine moment for LTW.
“Millions of people can draw,” says Kahn. “Art is when there is something screaming to get out.”
A bit later Kahn adds, “Every great artist has freed himself from something.”
It is the search and the discussion that make this play worthwhile. Wood's intensity adds an urgency that is irresistible.
Almquist's uncanny ability to play with such conviction the angry father who hates those paintings as well as the accomplished artist who sees the genius in Asher Lev's passion make “My Name is Asher Lev” one of the theater season's peak achievements.
Performances continue through Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E, Speedway Blvd.
Tickets are $20 general admission; $18 students, military and seniors 62-plus. For details and reservations, 520-327-4242, or visit livetheatreworkshop.org