Talkback tales

Some of my favorite theater moments take place post-curtain call, as cast and crew members return to stage in their street clothes and everyday roles to answer questions for audience members who’ve stayed to learn more about the show.

Last weekend I hit the talkback for “My Name is Asher Lev,” an Aaron Posner play being performed through April 3, 2011 by the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company — which performs at the John Paul Theatre at Phoenix College in Glendale.

The first thing that struck me, having not seen the play, was the scenic and properties design. I’m perpetually amazed by the meaning this company manages to convey with simple elements like windows, doors, tables and chairs.

“My Name is Asher Lev” is based on a book by the same name, one of several works authored by Chaim Potok (1929-2002) — a man “born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Poland” whose Orthodox upbringing conflicted with the world of literature and art that “captured his imagination.”

Though the characters in the play are Jewish, many audience members observed that the piece addresses universal themes. “We pride ourselves,” shared producing director Janet Arnold, “on presenting work that has universal themes from a Jewish perspective.”

Several of those attending the talkback were students who came to watch Michael Kary (Asher), who teaches acting and writing at Grand Canyon University. When Layne Racowsky, the show’s director, asked how many people had read the book “My Name is Asher Lev,” it was the student group that showed the most hands.

Turns out they also had plenty of questions. How much does the play directly mirror the book? “It’s a give and take between the book and the play,” answered Kary. Another asked, “What’s it like to do a play that makes you realize that art creates both pain and beauty?” The answer: “It’s the pain that we feel that makes us breath when the pain goes away…and makes us grateful.”

When someone asked about theater as a vehicle for social change, Racowsky was quick to affirm its importance — noting that seeing things that jar us can be a powerful jumping off point for action, for changing things in our own lives. “We like to be in the room and watch people when change happens,” explains Kary. And so, it seems — the theater/audience experience is hardly a one way street.

The variety of questions, asked by audience members of all ages, made clear that a single work can breed a host of different interpretations. For one man sitting in the front row, “My Name is Asher Lev” examines “what creates the difference between an artist and a great artist.”

For others, it’s about separating from parents to follow one’s own dreams. “That is one of the hardest things,” says Ben Tyler (Man), “when our own kids need to separate and go off and do their own thing.” For Asher Lev, that thing is making art — even if it’s controversial.

When a student asked how Andrea Dovner (Woman) is able to keep her voice despite screaming in the show, Kary is quick to remind them (and others in the audience) that “actors train like athletes.” “You don’t see it,” he adds, “because we come in all shapes and sizes.” But the work and discipline is there. “We keep ourselves healthy,” says Kary, “and there are regimens that we follow.”

I was moved by Dovner’s description of reading the book in preparation for her role. “The book is so delicious,” she said. “I read it slowly; I wanted to savor it.” I suspect many who’ve seen the production are eager to revisit the book again — and copies of several of Potok’s works were on sale the day I attended (thanks to a partnership with Changing Hands Bookstore).

Most touching was a tale shared by Kary, who has three young sons and one on the way. Kary said he had plenty of his own stuff to draw on in performing the role of young artist Asher Lev because he’s the youngest of his parent’s six children. Think five jocks and one actor — living in a house “filled with tons of trophies.” Still, Kary recalls his dad sitting behind him each day as he played piano, and says his dad “came to everything” when Kary was in performance mode.

As I left the talkback and headed to the parking lot, I overheard audience members reflecting on the themes they’d found most valuable. It was clear the work had an impact, and would continue to fuel all kinds of conversations. That’s the best evidence, I suppose, of the power of this piece.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to enjoy the “My Name is Asher Lev” study guide developed by Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company.

Coming up: From “Yonkers” to NYC

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