by Renisha Marie
I recently caught Stephen Sachs’ thought-provoking, profound and riveting production of the play, My Name Is Asher Lev, taken from Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel of the same name, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner.
The play is set in the 1950s, in the Brooklyn home of a Hasidic Jewish family, where a six-year-old boy named Asher Lev discovers an amazing gift bubbling within him. At a young age, the precocious Asher developed within him a strong fixation for art along with a focused, relentless, and positive can-do attitude.
Asher’s gift sends him on an amazing expedition of self-discovery and self-worth. The journey puts him at odds with his family’s expectations and religion, all for the sake of his passion for art.
My Name Is Asher Lev is a moving, challenging and thought-provoking play that crosses the lines of organized religion, ethnicity, and color, presenting for examination, on a universal level, readily identifiable social – human – conflicts. Follow me as we journey though the world of director and playwright Stephen Sachs:
Renisha Marie: Were there any personal parallels that brought you to the story?
Stephen Sachs: My parents were always very supportive of me wanting to be a theatre artist, so I never faced the intense parental conflicts that Asher battles in the play. For me personally, the closest parallel to Asher’s need to be an artist lies with my 18-year-old son, Daniel. He’s an artist. Like Asher, he’s been drawing since he was a little boy and it’s very clear that art is the path he is meant to follow.
Daniel reminds me of Asher in that he, too, has a gift and is passionate and determined to become who he is meant to be.
I wanted to do this play for my son.
Renisha Marie: What mindset did you have to possess in order to come out winning over your adversities?
Stephen Sachs: Whether guiding the Fountain Theatre for twenty-four years or simply surviving as an artist, the mindset that has served me best is when I trust my own artistic instincts and follow my heart. The more one does that, the more you develop an inner voice that speaks the truth to you and the more you learn to listen to it. The times when I’ve gotten myself into artistic trouble are the times when I refused to listen to what that inner voice was whispering.
Renisha Marie: What qualities were you probing for during casting?
Stephen Sachs: The play requires three exceptionally talented actors who must possess a very unique set of acting skills. Two of the actors play a variety of roles and must change character quickly, so you need actors with the technical skill to do that and who also possess the professional craft to be specific with each character and also have a deep emotional well that is truthful and honest. The actor playing Asher has the challenge of serving both as narrator and participant in the story. He must lead us on this journey and hold our attention, all the while being engaging and charming while wrestling with these very deep, profoundly personal struggles over family and self-identity. We must care about him deeply and want him to find his true way.
I’m blessed to have Jason, Joel and Anna — three gifted actors who worked very hard and are utterly dedicated to serving the play at the highest level possible.
Renisha Marie: What individual qualities did you see in Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja, and Joel Polis that made them stand out above the rest?
Stephen Sachs: I prefer working with actors I already know and trust. Jason was new to me; I had never seen him before. But, when Jason auditioned, there was no question in my mind that he was my Asher. He naturally had everything I was looking for: the right look, the intelligence, humor, charm, the ability to hold the stage as a storyteller, and the complexity and emotional depth as an actor. Anna and Joel are both actors I’ve known and respected for years, although this is the first project we’ve actually worked on together. Anna has a remarkable authenticity as an actress; her river runs deep. Joel has tremendous versatility and a fierce dedication mixed with a delicious sense of humor. Together, the three of them blend marvelously and have developed into an extraordinary, seamless ensemble.
Renisha Marie: What do you love about your work?
Stephen Sachs: What I love most about theatre is when I see how the work we create changes lives. The moments of artistic expression that have given me the most satisfaction are the ones when I see audiences profoundly moved — and somehow changed — by what we’ve just experienced together. It’s hard to pinpoint but you know it, you feel it, when it happens.
A connection happens between the actors on stage and the people in the audience, and between audience members themselves, when we all share in this deeply human experience and are somehow lifted and exalted by it. Moments like that make everything else worthwhile.
If you have a passion of any kind, then My Name Is Asher Lev is the play for you.
Production photos by Ed Krieger. Renisha Marie is a feature writer for Examiner.
My Name Is Asher Lev Now – April 19 (323) 663-1525 MORE
It’s hard to express how blessed I feel to have Stephen Sachs as my theatre partner, my Co-Artistic Director at the Fountain. I’ve watched his genius grow, develop, and blossom over these 24 years, and I’m so grateful for all the projects he has helmed as Producer and Director, and especially for the plays he has written.