Art exacts a toll on its practitioners. This observation is almost a cliche. But a solid production of “My Name Is Asher Lev” peels away any associations of triteness and makes you feel the weight of an artist’s sacrifice. The current 1st Stage production, adapted by Aaron Posner and directed by Nick Olcott, illuminates the stubborn bravery of the title character, a young Hasidic Jewish artist who flouts the values of his devout community to realize his vision. Asher’s courage is cheering — and yet you reel at the emotional and spiritual cost of his choice.
The story, based on Chaim Potok’s novel, unfolds on designer Jessica Cancino’s set — a dining room and other interiors splayed around the facade of a Brooklyn rowhouse. The building is home to the artistic prodigy Asher Lev (Lucas Beck), whose zeal for drawing, as a youngster in the 1950s, flummoxes his conservative father, Aryeh (Andy Brownstein) and gentle mother, Rivkeh (Hyla Matthews). When Asher makes a creative choice that seems to spurn his parents’ beliefs in particularly glaring fashion, he triggers a crisis that clarifies and also bereaves.
Depicting a character who grows from a crayon-wielding child to a paintbrush-wielding adult, Beck gives due scope to Asher’s uncertainty and callowness, which shade periodically into impatience, bashfulness and resolve. When the character gives a sly smile while describing a creative breakthrough, the moment is rare and telling. It’s a well-anchored performance that throws Asher’s evident artistic audacity (we never actually see his artwork) into relief.
A wisp of a figure in a headscarf, Matthews establishes the love and tenacity that allow the anxious Rivkeh to be as welcoming of Asher’s choices as she can be. Brownstein is convincingly brusque as the deeply pious Aryeh, who fears that his son’s gifts may be of demonic origin.
Brownstein and Matthews each channel a few other characters, to whom they give sharp definition. Brownstein is particularly dynamic, and quite funny, as Jacob Kahn, a celebrated artist who becomes Asher’s mentor, after warning the younger man of the suffering that is bound to come from taking a devout Hasidic outlook into the secular, goyim-dominated art world.
Reid May’s sound design — including a good deal of klezmer-style music — adds atmosphere throughout. And Kristin A. Thompson’s lighting, in conjunction with the set’s windows, helps drive home the story’s affecting climactic showdown, one that is all the more poignant because those involved tried so hard, in good faith, to avoid it.
My Name Is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok. Directed by Nick Olcott; costume design, Marsha M. LeBoeuf; props, Jessica Cancino. 90 minutes. Tickets: $15-33. Through Dec. 17 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner. Visit 1ststage.org or call 703-854-1856.