Sins of the Father | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Sins of the Father 

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National Jewish Theater

"Become a great artist. It is the only way to justify the pain you will cause," says Jacob Kahn to Asher Lev, the 13-year-old Orthodox boy with the disturbing gift for art. "What do I have to justify?" wonders this prodigy, who will find that his search for truth and fulfillment takes him farther and farther from his family, his culture, and his religion. "In the entire history of European art, there has not been a single religious Jew who was a great painter," Kahn reminds him. Later Anna Schaeffer, the Manhattan gallery owner, scoffs at Lev: "Indulge your Jewish sentimentality back in Brooklyn." The conflicts engendered in this young artist by a goyish if not outright pagan milieu and by the characters of his proud, bewildered father, who guards the family's lofty position in the Hassidic community, and mother, who loves them both and agonizes over their estrangement, finally express themselves in an iconographic painting so shocking that even the wise and sympathetic rabbi must order Lev to leave the community. "So now you are truly alone," Kahn shrugs. "Welcome to the world of the artist."

Chaim Potok's novel My Name Is Asher Lev, with its intense first-person narration and intricate exposition of aesthetic theories and ancient theological mysteries, would at first seem impossible to translate to the stage. In adapting his novel, however, Potok wisely retains his protagonist's direct address--his one-act The Gallery, the second half of "Sins of the Father," begins with Lev announcing to the audience, "Yes, I am that Asher Lev, about whom you talk at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties. It is time for the defense, but I will not apologize." Sandwiched in between Lev's preparations for his one-man show at Schaeffer's gallery are the events that have led him to paint a picture of anguish and torment. All the while he laments the lack of an aesthetic form in his own religious tradition that would convey these emotions--he's forced to use a form certain to repulse those he loves. Swiftly the tension builds, spurred by the art world's awed anticipation and Lev's parents' hesitant attempts to be supportive--until the moment when they confront the painting that will make their son an international celebrity and separate him from his parents forever.

We never actually see this painting, but the characters' responses to it are so vivid and well defined in this National Jewish Theater production that each audience member can see it clearly in his or her own imagination --and empathize with the suffering its creation demanded. Jane Galt's great Kokoschka swirl of a set heightens the poignancy: it recalls a stormy sea cyclone, with one distant illuminated window like a beacon and Lev's family scenes framed by a window, a foreshadowing of the painting. Under David Cromer's direction, Les Hinderyckx as Kahn and Joan Kohn as Schaeffer emerge from the disorderly world of modern art as toughened, compassionate angels. John Judd and Annabel Armour as Aryeh and Rivkeh Lev are at the opposite end of the spectrum: studies in discipline and unquestioning faith. In the middle is Asher Lev, played by Jeffrey Lieber with just the right balance of youthful arrogance and vulnerability. Though the opening-night performance suffered from a slight stiffness (and Judd's earlockless beard could use some finishing), this production should soon settle into a well-told and universally understood tale of ecstasy and sacrifice.

Raising the curtain for The Gallery is another one-act, The Carnival, also by Potok and loosely based--extremely loosely--on a segment of his 1969 novel The Promise. Two teenage boys at a summer carnival are suckered by a gambling game, one through the lure of rich prizes and the other through the seduction of the game's owner, who invokes their shared Jewish heritage and experiences in order to win the lad's trust--and his money. Though Potok gives us all the information we need to comprehend the action, the performers in this piece (Michael Shapiro and John Berczeller as the boys and Judd and Hinderyckx as the shysters) need to work harder to establish an emotional context for this abbreviated fable if it's to be more than a dry, didactic warning to beware false prophets.


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