As Marcus Walker watches a rehearsal of “My Name Is Asher Lev,” he’s not doing the things most directors do at rehearsal. He’s not correcting blocking, prompting actors, chatting with the stage manager. Instead, he’s sitting eight rows back in Theatre on the Square, watching as his assistant directors refine the show.
Thin, bald and worryingly still, Walker is watching with the intensity of a first-time parent – as, in a way, he is. “Asher Lev,” based on the Chaim Potok novel and opening this weekend, is the play Walker has been waiting years to direct – and with stage 4 metastatic melanoma, he can’t wait much longer.
“The novel changed my life,” said Walker, artistic and managing director of Lakewood Playhouse, which is mounting “Asher Lev” in partnership with the Broadway Center.
A man who’s been both a Baptist minister and a theater director for decades, Walker said he always felt the tension between religion and art.
“I was told by parishioners (in a former church) that Baptists couldn’t be actors. We want to be true to our traditions and religion, but as an artist, you believe there’s artistic truth inside,” he said.
Potok’s 1972 novel deals with just that tension. Asher, a young Hasidic Jew, is a talented painter who struggles against his strict father not only to paint nudes but to express his mother’s suffering and fear of death, ultimately through the image of a crucifixion.
Walker sees parallels with his own Christianity. “Out West, we dumb down religion in a lot of ways,” he said. “We should be challenging ourselves in terms of the meaning of life, and that’s what artists do.”
When playwright Aaron Posner worked with Potok’s widow to create a stage adaptation of the novel, Walker flew to Pennsylvania to see the 2009 premiere. He already had staged Posner’s “The Chosen,” also on Jewish themes, at Lakewood. He then decided he had to do “Asher Lev.”
In early 2010, Walker approached David Fisher, executive director of the Broadway Center, to suggest a partnership. Fisher had been helping other local theater companies in the same way, offering the downtown space plus help with marketing and ticketing. After an initial weekend in Theater on the Square, the play would have an extended run at Lakewood. Fisher, a longtime friend of Walker’s, agreed and planning began.
Then came fall, and with it an aggressive melanoma that attacked Walker’s health. Through numerous unsuccessful chemotherapy treatments, he held on to the Lakewood season even as friends held a supportive fundraising roast and his health deteriorated.
Now his voice is too weak to direct his actors and he relies on friendly arms to help him up the theater stairs. Before the play opens, he’s sharing what it means to him.
“I’m into redemptive theater,” Walker said. “I don’t want to do Walt Disney theater. I want it to mean something. It’s not about saving souls; it’s about beauty. Life is meant to be beautiful.”
Walker also got the chance to see his visualization of Asher Lev’s art in this production. After meeting Northwest painter Bo Bartlett by chance at his Vashon Island church, Walker realized he’d met another person changed by Potok’s writings. Bartlett offered to paint works to express Asher and his artistic journey. They won’t be on stage – by Posner’s instructions – but they will be displayed in the TOTS lobby.
As Jeffery Smith playing Asher and Elliot Wiener as his painting teacher rehearse on stage to the strains of a live klezmer violin, it’s clear Walker is surrounded by friends determined to help him stage this show despite his illness. Fisher and assistant director Rebecca Osmond-Polyakovsky do the directorial nitty-gritty, turning occasionally to check with Walker. Production manager James Venturini handles the practical aspects. Voices are hushed.
“I won’t lie and say it hasn’t been difficult,” said Venturini outside, voice breaking. “But it’s also been inspiring. It’s been a uniting thing. Everyone is really determined to make sure it comes off.”
The parallel between a fictional artist struggling with suffering and fear of death and a director struggling with cancer isn’t lost on anyone.
“This is as much Marcus’ story as Asher’s,” said Fisher, who also relates personally to the play’s themes. “Marcus has spent his entire career demanding of himself and the world around him to show that you can live a sacred life and immerse yourself in art. It’s amazing how often (theater) intersects with life.”
With his typical humor, Walker said: “It’s been a hoot to have to do this play while I’m dealing with this.”
Walker, who has two college-age sons and is married to Tacoma City Council member Lauren Walker, is “guardedly optimistic” about his chances. There are a few treatments still to try even as the family prepares for hospice care.
He is courageously honest about the fact that this might be his last play.
“I won’t be directing for a long time,” he said, collecting his energy before slowly hobbling back to his mid-row seat. “It’s a labor of love for me. If I am going out on a play, I want it to be this one.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, firstname.lastname@example.org