His is the game of Artful Dodger. And the late Chaim Potok knew the rules; in many ways, he'd written them.
"My Name Is Asher Lev," a world premiere adaptation of the popular Potok novel by the Arden Theatre, plays by those rules: Lev dodging between the tosses of challenges posed by the secular world of art and the more rigid restrictions of the Orthodox orb on which his family's canvas has been painted.
And Lev has been painted into a corner — take the bohemian bounce that brings him to art or the ricochet that rules his Chasid heritage.
It is one that actor Karl Miller brushes with greatness in a mesmerizing performance of a young man caught between rights and rituals.
Asher has learned to use cigar ash as a color tool while the black hats of heritage darken his prospects for a life amid the secularly enlightened.
This piece is an obvious choice for a theater company with an affinity for Potok, having chosen The Chosen for such treatment a decade ago. Abetted by Adena Potok, Chaim's widow as well as editor, as artistic consultant, this three-actor play of a thousand shadows and smiles, adapted and directed by Aaron Posner, is also a natural for the arresting talents of Miller, an off-Broadway and regional wunderkind who works wonders in the role — all the while not wondering, but knowing, what it must mean to be torn between two loves as Lev is.
He tears into the part with perfect understanding of the character and of Lev's, says the actor, "calm spiritual core."
But pacific overtures soon cede to the perfect storm of artful argument and parental conflict as Lev tries to frame his life according to his needs at the risk of neglecting the hierarchy of hope established by his frum folks.
"It's fun to imagine a way into a world so different from yours," says the 29-year-old non-Jewish actor, whose imaginative interpretation of Lev levitates the whole level of performance on stage.
Fringe festival? On the one hand, he's gentile; on the other, he's "played a Polish talmudic scholar" at a Jewish theater in Washington, D.C.
Yet, concedes Miller, "there still is a portion of the Jewish culture that will always be alien to me."
The portion of this week works well for this son of Lutheran ministers, who ministers lessons of life as Lev that are as old as the BIble.
As artful as he is on stage, actor Miller mentions that the tug of war between art and religion is a frayed fight roping in the antagonists with brushes on one side, tzitzit on the other.
"It is a much deeper rift than the one between science and religion," he avows, "which can co-exist more readily."
Maybe the art/Chasid chasm channels not the differences but their unbelievable similarities. "Both need one to believe in something without reason," says Miller.
There is a reason to believe his performance on stage because the actor accentuates what he calls "the meat of the story — family."
And Miller, who's part of the acting family that is the Rorschach Theatre in Washington — where he's a resident member — has taken up residence for the time being at the Arden with an ardent performance as he makes a name for himself by interpreting the ink blot of blistered beliefs as a work of art unto itself.