The intensity that drives My Name Is Asher Lev comes close to swamping the show in its regional premiere at Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati. An hour into Aaron Posner’s 96-minute, no-intermission script (adapted from Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel), the title character’s pitiless, relentless self-analysis has shifted toward self-absorption.
The core argument — which pits unyielding, enslaving tradition against the enlivening freedom of artistic inquiry — begins to sound like posturing. And the play’s vibrant energy, so promising at the outset, slides off into sound and fury.
Asher Lev (debuting Josh Odsess-Rubin) began to draw compulsively at age 6. His father (Michael Bath), a rigidly observant Jew who travels the world fostering traditional Jewish education, can see no place or need for art in a person’s life. As Asher matures, he comes to believe that exploring his art and observing his religion are not inconsistent. Father disagrees. He's appalled by his son’s drawings of nudes and his gathering fascination with Jesus and the crucifixion.
Asher’s mother (Regina Pugh) attempts to keep the peace while observing her own tradition of subservience to her husband.
Thus, art’s freedoms duel with religion’s strictures. Exploration rankles at the status quo. And with these specific confrontations come resonances that know no ethnic or intellectual boundaries. Do fathers shape sons into their own images as a stab at living again? Must sons replicate their fathers’ customs and beliefs in order to demonstrate respect?
Asher Lev takes stage with ETC’s usual deft assurance. Lynn Meyers’ direction is clarity itself, although she might have introduced some breathers and coaxed some of the portentous self-consciousness out of Odsess-Rubin’s otherwise effective performance.
Pugh and Bath differentiate nicely among the multiple characters they portray. It’s no fault of theirs that the multiplicity steals some effect from the parents.
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Feb. 14. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get theater details here.