Recently I had the chance to sit down with the cast of George Street Playhouse’s “My Name is Asher Lev.” This play by Aaron Posner is adapted from the famous novel by Chaim Potok and is a tale of the struggle of a young Orthodox Jewish man to live his authentic life expressing his gift as an artist in a culture that reveres different qualities.
The cast consists of Bob Ari as Asher’s Father and Lena Kaminsky as Asher’s Mother, both of whom play many other characters in the play, and Miles G. Jackson as Asher Lev.
Q on Stage: Have any of you ever done this play, “My Name Is Asher Lev,” before?
Miles G. Jackson: I auditioned for it once before and that was the first time I read it, but I was already a big Aaron Posner fan, so I’m happy to finally be doing this show but also to do an Aaron Posner show.
I really love playwrights who write similarly to how I think I speak–it makes things easier, but it’s also fun and his writing is often pretty irreverent and has a lot of direct address. And I really enjoy irreverently directly addressing an audience. It puts me at ease because it admits we’re doing a play instead of fighting so hard to uphold this illusion.
QoS: Lena, have you ever done a play like this?
Lena Kaminsky: Both Bob and I play multiple characters in this show. I have done shows, before where I play multiple characters, which is fun and challenging. I don’t know if I’ve done a show like this. It’s a pretty unique show!
QoS: Is it common for a show like this with multiple characters to be done with a cast of three?
Bob Ari: The financial pressures of theater today really force multiple-character casting. Because it’s a reality, it’s also become a very popular theatrical convention. The audience gets a kick out of watching actors stretch like that.
MGJ: I think that’s in line with the story of the show, both from the original novel and the way Aaron Posner adapts things. It’s very imaginative and very creative and I think it’s important that there are people playing multiple characters as opposed to casting individually.
BA: For me a lot of it has to do with Asher looking for a kind of a father character. I play four characters and, except for one, they’re all sort of father figures to Asher. One is his actual father, one is his artistic father and one is his spiritual father. But there’s a through line.
QoS: Do you get a sense that it’s Asher retelling the story and peopling it from his perspective or do you get a sense that it’s actually each of these characters existing in a different space?
MGJ: I think it’s a solid mix of characters. It’s been referred to as a memory play because he’s retelling it after it all happened–and we see it all happening. But it jumps around to so many different topics, and it’s a mix of sort of a mix of retelling, re-experiencing with hindsight versus what happened. The way it’s staged, sometimes it feels like Asher’s summoning the memories, and sometimes it’s like these memories come upon him and he has no choice but to let the audience in on what’s coming back to him.
LK: It’s like certain things trigger a certain memory
MGJ: It doesn’t feel always intentional why he’s telling a certain story. It’s like he has to–it has come back to haunt him.
BA: You bring up a very interesting subject which I don’t think we’ve addressed–is whether or not the material of these various characters objective or subjective? Last year, I did a playing where I was playing one of a girl’s dead parents. I had a big conflict with the woman who was playing her mother. She believes in ghosts, and she said “we are ghosts!” and I said “No! We are memories,” we are filtered through this woman’s vision of her parents. I said it’s a very different thing. I’ve been playing it objectively. I’ve been playing like his memory is absolutely the way it was.
QoS: Lena, what interested you about the role of Asher’s mother, the female characters?
LK: I think that the relationship between Asher and his mother, in particular. It’s really special and they’re very tied together. He’s an only child and there’s a very protective feeling and a real struggle, a real inner conflict for her, because she wants to understand her son and being so religious it’s a challenge. That conflict is interesting. I also play an art gallery owner. She’s a blue blood gallery owner, who finds young artists and helps make their careers happen. She sees a real gift in him. So does the mother, and his father. Everyone sees this incredible artistic gift that Asher has and how do you nurture that in a community where this gift is not permitted, it’s just not.
QoS: What has been your biggest challenge as you approach making these people real?
MGJ: One challenge in trying to make them real is working with dialects. Once we started incorporating that, it was really important for me not to be a hokey one-dimensional characterization “this is what a Brooklyn Jew sounds like.” I had to address for myself what stereotypes I think of when I hear that dialect and not let Asher be reduced to *just* that. Otherwise, I think a challenge in the show has been being fair to all parties involved. As Asher, I don’t want my retelling of things about my parents, I don’t want them to be the bad guys. Even though there’s conflict, I think that cheapens the whole story and it’s not that interesting if it’s a boy against his parents. I think it’s much more interesting when love and respect of two groups seemingly at odds with each other and leads them to attempt to resolve that conflict.
LK: I agree with Miles. These scenes are really short—part of this story together comes from a place of love to make it real. There’s an innocence, when he’s younger, and she’s making those discoveries of his talent. She’s got the recognition that her son’s talent is important to him.
MGJ: It’s definitely been a challenge to not go to bitterness. It’s so tempting to go there; there’s so many reasons that one could be bitter in this situation. Bitter is much less interesting.
QoS: Do any of you have an experience that you draw on to inform your performance, to find the light through the bitterness?
MGJ: We have talked in rehearsal about our families. I’m Jewish but my father is not, so I don’t know a lot of my Jewish relatives. My upbringing had a sense of cultural pride, but also wariness. I see it in my Mom that she has made the best of her situation. I know it has hurt her, what’s happened with her family. She can’t shape her identity around someone else’s rejection of her, or else she’d be crippled. In my personal life it is always an effort to remain positive, and it’s really easy not to be. On stage, it’s a more interesting and inviting thing to see rather “than this happened to me and I’m bitter about it.”
LK: There’s something about reconciling the past to move forward …
MGJ: And we’ve discussed this, the story is not interesting if it’s about a really talented kid who makes it in the art world and and the leaves his family. That’s not interesting. It’s more interesting when he can’t leave either out.
QoS: What do you want the audience to take away from your performance?
BA: I don’t think in those terms. I don’t think of what I want them to take away from my performance. I think more about what I want them to take away from the play, which is really the universality of the theme. On the surface, ostensibly it‘s this Jewish family, but it could be any family. It’s about a family’s expectations. It’s a boy fighting for his own way, and that’s a universal theme. Coming of age, finding his way in the world–who he is and what his identity is. Finding the people that will support and nurture that, how important that is. And how important it is to break away from those negative aspects of home life that hold you back.
Make your reservations now for “My Name is Asher Lev” at www.georgestplayhouse.org–be sure to see it with someone you love, and love to discuss the world.