Reconciling art with faith in ‘My Name is Asher Lev’

Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre always punches above its weight class. I don’t see many plays at the quirky 126-seat alley theatre space in a church basement, but I’m rarely disappointed when I do. This is, I think, a testimony to artistic director Ron Reed’s excellent leadership, and Pacific Theatre’s commitment to producing exciting work.

Some may dismiss Pacific Theatre as strictly Christian, and therefore irrelevant to the general population. This is shortsighted, for while the company selects plays which focus on faith, their reach goes far beyond conservative churchgoers. I’m not sure what their secret sauce is—maybe it’s the combination of veteran leadership and youthful energy, plus a dollop of church fellowship.

On Friday night, I attended the opening of the company’s latest work, My Name is Asher Lev. It’s a theatrical adaptation by Aaron Posner of the popular Chaim Potok novel about a young Hasidic Jew whose passion as a visual artist conflicts with his family’s faith. The episodic play follows the young Asher from his discover of his gift for drawing at the age of five or six through his adulthood and artistic success.

It’s a wordy script, but one that explores big questions: where does the inspiration for making art come? How does a religious person reconcile artistic impulses which may seem profane to their faith? Plus, the script is full of Yiddish, which is one of my favourite languages.

There’s a relationship between a young Asher and a curmudgeonly old artist which rings false–are young artists never mentored by kind, elderly female painters–but that’s an exception to an otherwise strong script.

The cast is very strong. Giovanni Mocibob has a remarkable amount of text to manage. He struggled a couple of times in the second act, but I put it down to opening night jitters. His fellow actors Nathan Schmidt and Katharine Venour do a fantastic job of juggling multiple roles. The production was otherwise quite stripped down—monochromatic lighting, a sparse set in a quiet, effective score. I might have gone further in paring down production elements—the stage floor treatment and lighting gobos felt needlessly flashy.

All in all, My Name is Asher Lev is yet another strong example of work from Pacific Theatre, and I’d recommend you check it out. The show runs through February 26, and tickets are available here.

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