My Name Is Christian Carvajal

By Christian Carvajal on March 7, 2011


I was scheduled to review My Name Is Asher Lev at Lakewood Playhouse, but numerous hurdles, including my own absentmindedness, got in the way. Instead, I recruited my friend Brie Yost to review the production, as she'd already seen it at Broadway Center Tacoma. This was a fortuitous choice, as Brie is Jewish, and the play is about the artistic struggles of a young "Torah Jew" (Hasid) in 1950s Brooklyn. The script, based on a popular novel, immerses us quickly in kabbalistic spirituality and Yiddish jargon. One would think a guy like me, a Mexican-American agnostic who spent his formative years in Oklahoma, would find little of himself in the story of young Asher Lev.

I went to see the show last Thursday, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I was well aware of the devastating illness suffered by its director, Marcus Walker, who worked with assistants to complete what will almost certainly be his final production. I've never met Mr. Walker, but I gather he's something of a spiritual leader in the Tacoma theater community. He's also a Baptist minister, whose life in the arts has clashed with his mostly fundamentalist religion. I knew Mr. Walker saw himself in Asher Lev, and this production would be his passion project. That usually makes for excellent theater.

Well, this may surprise you, but I saw myself in Asher, too. Regardless of the man I became, I was raised as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. I wrote science fiction stories as a boy; but I hid them from everyone but my mother, because we were discouraged from envisioning any future other than the one foretold in Revelation. Like the Hasidim, we had our own ecclesiastical jargon, and the diphthongs of Hebrew were familiar to my lips even as a child. Like the Hasidim, we dressed as if we were time travelers from the past. And like the Hasidim, and like Oklahoma Baptists, we had strict taboos about subject matter fit for discussion or artistic representation. Like Asher, I felt compelled to break all those taboos; and as I grew into an actor and writer, I found it all but impossible to reconcile my two lives and thought patterns.

Even now I feel this conflict. I've written a book about the Rapture, and I'm working (very slowly) on another about modern American sexuality. These are not fit subjects for the dinner table, and my future in-laws would be thrilled if I'd invest my limited talent in more "noble" pursuits. I just can't. That's not me. It's in the nature of an artist to find himself on the Other Side, the shadow realm that Asher's faith calls the Sitra Achra. My mind is more comfortable in the wilderness outside the walls of civilization.

I won't review My Name Is Asher Lev. I'm kind of glad I don't have to, actually; not in detail, anyway. While it is very good, it isn't quite perfect, and I'd be obliged to say why...though it hit me as if it were. It's talky and melodramatic and slathered in Hebrew, yes, but it's also the story of my life. It landed over and over again. So if, in any way, it seems as if it might be the story of your life, too, you should see it just as quickly as you can. Help its fine cast and crew pay fitting tribute to an artist, Marcus Walker, and to the artist in all of us.