Des Moines Register Theater Review: ‘Asher Lev’ paints story of art, faith

‘Asher Lev’ paints story of art, faith

A theatre review by Michael Morain

Des Moines Register, mmorain@dmreg.com 1:15 p.m. CDT March 23, 2015

 

Think for a second: How did you choose your identity?

If you rummage through your childhood memories, can you recall the turning points when you decided what sort of person you’d become?

Asher Lev can, and he dusts them off for a little show-and-tell in “My Name is Asher Lev,” a gentle, thoughtful story that StageWest offers through Sunday at the Des Moines Social Club. It’s about the moments that make Asher who he is: specifically, an observant artist and an observant Jew in 1950s Brooklyn, where those identities don’t comfortably overlap.

“Art is not for people who want to make the world holy,” Asher’s painting coach warns the 13-year-old boy. “You’ll be like a nun in a broth—.” For the boy’s sake, he downgrades “brothel” to “a theater for burlesque.”

Mixed metaphors aside, the line summarizes the tidy symmetry between art and religion that pulls the poor kid in two directions. As an artist, he tries to find his own voice. As a Jew, he answers not only to his people, in general, but his parents, who fled persecution in Russia and want to transplant their Hasidic roots in America. They’d prefer to see Asher swap his paints for a prayer book.

The 2009 script by Aaron Posner streamlines the 1972 novel by Chaim Potok, following Asher from kindergarten to young adulthood. The title role here belongs to Andrew Rubenbauer, who, in his Des Moines debut, gives just the right touch to young Asher’s fragile enthusiasm and teenage Asher’s angst. You feel for him.

Rubenbauer narrates the 90-minute show with short monologues stitched between scenes with Asher’s long-suffering parents and a few other adults, all ably played by Greg Blumhagen and Laura Sparks (dressed in both Jewish and high-society costumes by designer Jill Lindeman). The adult characters are more fleshed out in the novel, but even in quick vignettes on stage, Blumhagen and Sparks bring their roles to life with clarity and style — and decent accents, too, spread thick as cream cheese on a New York bagel. As Asher’s father, Blumhagen scolds the boy for drawing so many “naked vimmen.”

At Friday’s opening, the actors competed at times with the music — recorded snippets of piano and violin — but the soundtrack paid off near the end, when it dropped out at a key moment during one of Asher’s gallery openings. Likewise, the four giant window frames above the set (by April Zingler) seem heavy-handed until their symbolism snaps into place in the final scene.

The design elements, together with honest performances from the cast, add up to a quiet but undeniable success for first-time director Michael Tallman (who has directed StageWest’s script-reading series for two years but never a fully staged production). He seems to understand the value of showing rather than telling, especially with subjects as squishy as art and religion. (The Des Moines Community Playhouse understood that two years ago when it staged “Red,” about the painter Mark Rothko.)

Asher himself puts it this way: “Can you ever understand what you’re simply told, no matter how wise the teacher?”

Maybe not, but this show shows more than you might expect.

‘My Name is Asher Lev’

WHEN: 7:30 Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 25-29, 2015.

WHERE: Des Moines Social Club’s Kum & Go Theater, 901 Cherry St.

TICKETS: $25-$30, with various half-price discounts.

INFO: www.stagewestiowa.com