In a culture of typically uniform and muted clothing, one Hasidic Jew broke away into a world fueled by vibrant hues and expression.
At least that’s the premise of Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel, “My Name Is Asher Lev,” which is being brought to life on stage by theater company CATCO at Studio Two in the downtown Riffe Center beginning Wednesday.
Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew living in 1950s Brooklyn, N.Y., Lev was born with artistic aspirations and has a desperate need to paint, which conflicts with his family’s heavily religious views. The challenge for Lev is that he feels like he has to create art, while art was viewed by his community as secular and a major distraction from religion.
“It’s a play about being an artist and being different, and being different in a community that’s different,” said Steven Anderson, producing director at CATCO. “The play becomes a metaphor for any piece of us that is different, that our family and the community doesn’t understand, but that we feel compelled to share.”
One of Anderson’s many duties at CATCO is to decide which plays will be put into production. He said he felt this is a story that needed to be told because it remains relevant today.
“You begin to recognize that we’re all sort of ‘other’ in some light,” Anderson said.
The play follows Lev from the time he is 6 years old into adulthood, as he discovers himself through his art and as a Hasidic Jew. Isaac Nippert stars as Lev and said he most concerned with portraying Lev’s developing personality.
“I focused on the energy and innocence of a 6-year-old rather than trying to transform physically,” Nippert said.
Melissa Graves and Ralph Scott play Lev’s mother and father, Rivkeh and Aryeh Lev. They also play all other characters in the play, and Anderson said the ensemble between the three actors is astonishing.
“I feel very fortunate to have the cast that we have for this show,” Nippert said. “Everybody seemed to agree with what the story was that we needed to tell.”
Art is at the core of the story, and the set is a reflection of that, said scenic designer Eric Barker at CATCO.
“We really wanted to put this production in the perspective of Asher, and his world,” Barker said. Barker is in charge of implementing the director’s vision in a 3-D way.
The set is made of more than 35 pieces of stretched canvas, including the wall and floor, Barker said. Each canvas was individually painted and then assembled to create what resembles an abstract expressionist painting, Barker said. Each canvas is covered with a cloth, and over the course of the play, a cloth will be removed to reveal another part of the set.
Barker said he wants the audience to feel like they were walking into a painting of his Asher Lev’s world.
“When you walk into the space, you’re engulfed in his world because the set breaks the barrier and is extended overhead of the audience,” Barker said.
Throughout the play, Asher will be creating works of art on a canvas that is turned away from the audience. The art will be described in detail, but the audience ultimately has to imagine what it looks like.
Because this play follows Asher from childhood into his adulthood, Anderson said it moves quickly. There is only one act and the show is 90 minutes long.
The play is presented in conjunction with Gallery Players, which is one of the longest running community theater in the Midwest, according to its website. According to its website, the group aims to highlight the Jewish experience and work by Jewish playwrights this season. Potok was an American author and rabbi.
“My Name Is Asher Lev” is set to be at Studio Two until Nov. 9. Tickets range in price from $11.50 to $45.