Play: “The Immigrant”
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus
Dates: June 8, 9, 11, 12, 15, 16, 18, 19
Tickets: $34-$38; contact 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org
Story: As thousands of Jews immigrated to America to escape persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia in the early 20th century, several Jewish organizations operated what was known as the Galveston Movement between 1907 and 1914. It was designed to divert Jewish immigrants away from the overly congested Eastern seaboard, particularly New York City, into the labor-needy Southwest.
Playwright Mark Harelik’s grandfather, Haskell Harelik, was one of those immigrants who left the port of Bremen, Germany for Galveston, Texas in 1909. Upon arrival he journeyed further into Texas to a hamlet known as Hamilton, where the young Haskell was befriended by banker Milton Perry and his wife Ima. Gradually Haskell learned English and turned his tiny banana cart into a grocery store, brought his wife Leah to the States a year later and raised three sons as the only Jewish family in town. “The Immigrant” is the playwright’s paean to his ancestors, following their lives primarily over a period of about 35 years.
Highlights: Edward Coffield, native Texan and artistic associate of New Jewish Theatre, has cast a quartet of splendid performers to enact Mark Harelik’s affecting two-act drama, which the playwright says was the most performed play in America in 1991, six years after it debuted. With the able assistance of Kate Slovinski, who furnishes the performance space with sturdy work carts for Robert Thibaut to hoist about as Haskell, and some astute projection coordination by Mark Wilson and Tyler Linke utilizing actual photos from the era and even from the Harelik family album, Coffield’s meticulously prepared presentation has the look and feel of authenticity.
Other Info: Some very handsome scenic art painted by set designer Josh Smith adds to the ambience of the locale, showing us an inspired vision of the landscape that Smith shrewdly illuminates. Josh Limpert’s sound design adds to the effect with the lilting tunes of the mockingbird, and Tara McCarthy’s wigs help define the aging of the two characters portrayed by Peggy Billo and Michelle Hand. It may have been a good idea to also adorn Thibaut with a wig in the second act, or at least some dye for his hair, because in no way does he look like a 55-year-old man.
Playwright Harelik is careful not to view his grandfather totally through rose-colored glasses, showing us his ancestor’s stubbornness and inflexibility in dealings with his wife and, eventually, his benefactor. Mostly, it’s a tale that depicts the incredible courage and loneliness of immigrants who left behind their families and their familiar surroundings, even when persecuted, for the opportunity to forge a life in the New World.
Each of the players contributes handsomely to the finished product, led by Billo’s inspired portrayal of Ima. Initially alarmed at being approached on the street by the itinerant immigrant peddler, she quickly becomes a surrogate mother of sorts and helps him with her innate kindness. Billo carefully reveals in a key conversation with Hand her character’s own aching heart, a soaring highlight of the production.
Hand is very good at conveying the overwhelming loneliness crushing Haskell’s young wife, Leah, in America. Beyond acclimating to a new country, she must preserve her religious beliefs without benefit of a rabbi, a synagogue or any other Jewish settler in Hamilton save her husband, who is more concerned with economic survival. That same scene with Billo marks a turning point for Leah as well, which Hand demonstrates soundly.
Gary Wayne Barker, who often portrays timid souls on local stages, convincingly shows us a different side as the stern and proper banker, who takes a liking to young Haskell and helps set him up in business. More importantly, he learns something about tolerance himself in the process.
Thibaut is extremely good in the work’s first act as he develops Haskell’s personality and determination to acclimate to his new life. It’s a profoundly affecting performance, so much so in fact that there’s a bit of a letdown after intermission.
“The Immigrant” is a painstaking look at a specific individual’s assimilation into American culture, but one that easily serves as a reminder of what America did, and should continue to, represent to dreamers of a better life worldwide.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.