Mira Hirsch laughs that many people, because of her background, assume that she aggressively pursued taking on the new production of “My Name Is Asher Lev” at Theatrical Outfit. In actuality, it’s the opposite. Tom Key, artistic director of the theater company, knew he wanted Hirsch to direct the production and tracked her down, no doubt in part due to the work she has done at her own company, Jewish Theatre of the South, and independently throughout town.
Running through September 16 at Theatrical Outfit’s Balzer Theater, the drama “My Name Is Asher Lev” is an adaptation of a novel by Chaim Potok. It features Nick Arapoglou in the lead role, as a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn in the 1950s who early in life realizes that he likes art and wants to pursue it for a living. As he chases his passion, his education becomes almost secondary. Relationships within his community and family begin to strain, primarily with his father, especially as Asher begins painting nude figures and crucifixions.
“When he introduces those elements, it becomes a real conflict with his family but also within himself,” says Hirsch. “His main conflict is, how can he be part of the religious community and pursue this passion? He wants to follow the word of the Torah, but is this a gift from God or the other side? In his community, which values intellect over emotion, art is frowned on.”
The cast is tiny — just three performers. Arapoglou’s Asher is both the narrator and protagonist of the story, while Lane Carlock and Brian Kurlander play multiple roles as the men and women in Asher’s life from the time he is six until his early 20s.
The main character’s coming of age is about his self-discovery as he attempts to reconcile the two worlds, being both a Jew and an artist. “Asher is dealing with a very primal struggle,” Key says. “He has a gift and an insatiable need to express it. Drawing and painting is as necessary to him on the food chain as food and water.”
A longtime fan of Potok’s novel, Key credits it and a handful of others with his decision in the ‘70s to follow his heart and become an artist. “I am not a visual artist and I’m not a Hasidic Jew, but I can relate,” he says. “It’s about when someone has a passion, a calling. Do we compromise, or do we be who we are?”
“Asher Lev” was adapted into a play by Aaron Posner and first performed in 2009. Key was a little skeptical and nervous when reading the script, not sure how it would translate to the stage, but he was relieved when he realized that it worked.
As for Hirsch, whose Jewish Theatre of the South ran for 13 years before closing its doors in 2008, the play has been on her short list to do for years, especially since she had success with Potok’s “The Chosen” at her company. “It’s such a beautiful piece,” she says. It’s fiction, but Hirsch feels that it’s the most autobiographical work of Potok, who was also a visual artist himself.
And she also can relate to Asher’s struggle. “I did not grow up very religious, but I can relate to having traditional responsibilities and being an artist and the conflict with that,” she says.