When a young Jewish lad is compelled by an overpowering artistic desire to draw and paint, this passion disrupts his family and upsets many in the Hassidic community in their Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood.
Not only does Asher Lev defy the wishes of his strict, religious father, the boy dares to paint abstracts of crucifixions, sensitive subject matter in the early 1950s for both Christians and Jews.
And therein lies the conflict in "My Name is Asher Lev," a successful off-Broadway play that the American Stage Theatre Company is presenting as the second production of its summer series.
Directed by T. Scott Wooten, the former artist assistant at American Stage, and starring Chris Crawford as Asher Lev, the drama opens today and runs through Aug. 25.
Adapted from a 1972 novel by the late noted Jewish author and Rabbi Chaim Potok, the play explores the struggle between religion and art, father and son, and peer pressure and individuality.
Crawford portrays Asher as a young man reflecting on his journey of self-discovery. Also in the cast are Brian Webb Russell and Georgina McKee, both in multiple roles. They portray the key figures in Asher's life: his father; his uncle; the Rebbe (community leader and teacher); his artistic mentor; his mother; an art collector; and a female model.
Neither the director nor any of the cast is Jewish. Director Wooten and actor Crawford say that although it is a challenge for gentiles to take on this story and these characters, the play speaks to universal themes to which everyone can relate.
"Here is a gifted young man who is driven by his talent and yet he wants to remain true to his faith and his family," says Wooten. "The play opened off-Broadway last year with a closing date in mind, but it has continued its run because it has universal appeal."
The play is the 2013 winner of the New York Outer Critic's Circle award for "best new play."
"This speaks to the artist in all of us," says Crawford. "I can relate to that fight between faith and heart because I wanted to be an actor. It caused some tensions in my family, because I was brought up in the Bible Belt, where acting was not a profession that was easily accepted."
The title of the play comes from a couple of scenes, including one in which Asher looks in the mirror and declares that he is Asher Lev, a son, an artist and a man of faith.
Also, early in the play, when Asher is only 6 years old, his uncle jokes that the boy might be a "little Chagall," a reference to Russian painter Marc Chagall, a modernist considered by many to be the most successful Jewish painter of the 20th century; or he might be a little Picasso. But the boy says no: "I am Asher Lev."
There is brief nudity on stage (a woman modeling for a painting). And, as per instructions from playwright Aaron Posner, who adapted the book, none of Asher's paintings are shown.
"This allows members of the audience to use their imagination," says Wooten, who also went for a sparse set. "It covers this young man's life from age 6 to 25 with a series of monologues," he adds.
Wooten, an Arkansas native, served as artistic associate at American Stage for nine seasons before joining the stage management team at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Jupiter. While at American Stage he directed numerous plays, including "Driving Miss Daisy," "Fully Committed," "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "Sleuth."
Crawford, a 2007 winner of an acting scholarship at the Kennedy Center, was last seen in the American Stage summer 2012 production of "The Foreigner." Other credits include "A Christmas Carol," "John & Jen," and "Romeo and Juliet" at St. Petersburg's freeFall Theatre.