Divine distress

My Name Is Asher Lev

<p><b>“Only God can judge me now.”</b></p>

“Only God can judge me now.”

Photo courtesy of B Street Theatre staff

My Name Is Asher Lev, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday; select performances 2 p.m. Thursday and 1 p.m. Sunday;$25-$35. B3 Stage at B Street Theatre, 2727 B Street; (916) 443-5300; www.bstreettheatre.org. Through October 19.
Rated 3.0

Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel My Name Is Asher Lev is a fascinating story of a Hasidic Jewish boy in the 1950s whose emerging need to express himself artistically bumps into his faith-based fundamentalist family and community. Though he strives to be the son his religiously active father Aryeh and mother Rivkeh want him to be, Asher’s inner need to develop his art through the secular world creates fractions and tensions.

Playwright Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Potok’s book, which became an off-Broadway hit last year, takes the same premise of a misunderstood artistic boy aching to break out of his social and religious confinements. For the most part, it’s still a compelling universal look at an artist’s struggle to have a unique voice, but it falls short in sharing the complexity of the situations.

Though the play is meant to show Asher’s struggles with his unbending parents and with his closed community, they all come across as surprisingly supportive and understanding. The book was better able to capture Asher’s confusion and struggles, while the play and the current B Street Theatre production at times make Asher come across as obstinate rather than artistically conflicted.

However, the story is still captivating—an adult Asher looking back at his younger self living in an insular world while intrigued by the surrounding modern society. Max Rosenak adeptly portrays both the man and the child: In the first act he is both the narrator as well as the boy, from 6 years old through his teens, while the second half he is emerging as a developing artist.

Joel Polis plays a variety of roles, mainly the father, but also an artist mentor and other male characters, breathing life and sympathy into his roles. Julie Voshell plays the mother, as well as other female characters; she does a good job, but is hampered by the less-defined roles.

The set is a handsome one, with the clever backdrop of Torah ark doors that remain closed until the suspenseful unveil. The play is one worth visiting, though the book still delivers heftier and more complex issues.