This is in no way a formal review: TNT critic Alec Clayton will be penning a far more considered one in an upcoming GO guide, and I’ll leave that to him. Knowing that, I went to “My Name Is Asher Lev” anyway this weekend at Theatre on the Square, mostly out of curiosity to see not only this Jewish play that means so much to Lakewood Playhouse director (and Baptist minister) Marcus Walker, but also just what Walker’s cast would make of it.
Because, as I wrote in last week’s GO, Walker is seriously ill with a stage four metastatic melanoma that’s eating him up, literally. When I interviewed him, he was weak, unable to walk up the stairs by himself or even, sometimes, finish sentences. He was relying on colleagues to do the vocal, energetic nitty-gritty of directing. Yet “Asher Lev” was definitely Walker’s play – inspired by the Chaim Potok novel as a teenager struggling between religion and theater, he has wanted to stage the play adaptation ever since it was written.
Walker was in the audience Sunday afternoon – as were many other members of Tacoma’s broader art community, such as Tacoma Art Museum’s Stephanie Stebich, composer Greg Youtz, City arts administrator Amy McBride and more. It was a full house, unusual for TOTS at any time. But this play deserves full houses, night after night. It’s not afraid to speak directly on subjects that we all think of but are too scared to speak of: our fear of death, our fear of truth-telling, the fact that good art sometimes defies traditions we hold dear, and the angst of hurting others as we seek to express our own truths.
This is all told by Asher Lev, a young Hasidic Jew who also happens to be a phenomenal artist, and who eventually ends up painting both nudes and crucifixions. As Asher, Jeffrey Alan Smith does a terrific job of both narrating the story and acting many different ages of Asher with real conviction. Paige Hansen does the best she can with a part (Asher’s mother) that’s written for a subservient, one-dimensionally suffering character. Elliot Weiner makes a wonderfully wry father, with sly Tevye-like humor and much more than just a grumpy old Jewish traditionalist. As Asher’s painting mentor he’s arch and pointed; as the Rabbi he’s both thoughtful and authoritative.
Around them is a set by Henry Loughman that works well for many locations, with a subtle symbolism that isn’t revealed until the end, and onstage violinist Leslie Foley hangs the whole thing together with understated emotion.
This isn’t a perfect production. The sound effects don’t outweigh the irritation of the speaker white noise; there are occasional acting lapses and a tendency to plodding over-seriousness.
But it’s a production that Marcus Walker should be proud of, and that should make Tacomans realize what he’s done for community theater here.
“My Name is Asher Lev” by Aaron Posner moves to Lakewood Playhouse for the rest of the run. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday (also Thursday Mar. 3), 2 p.m. Sunday Feb. 25-Mar. 20
Lakewood Playhouse, 5429 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd SW, Lakewood. $28; Mar. 3 Pay-What-You-Can. 253-588-0042, www.lakewoodplayhouse.org