They always tell aspiring writers to "write what you know", and in the case of playwright/novelist Mark Harelik's The Immigrant, he's done just that, fully capturing the experience of his Russian grandparents as they fled from their oppressors and settled in the small town of Hamilton, Texas. It's a wonderful work, touching the heart and stirring the soul while allowing us to witness their progress over the course of time as they assimilate into American culture, without ever losing touch with their own Jewish heritage. The New Jewish Theatre closes their season with an absolutely lovely production of this warm and moving play that's not to be missed by any fan of theatre.
When newly arrived immigrant and banana peddler Haskell Harelik happens upon the home of Milton and Ima Perry while looking for a cool drink of water, it's one of the chance meetings that you know will change all of their lives forever. In this case, Haskell finds a family willing to rent him a room, even if they're a bit reluctant at first. Milton, a banker, is impressed with Haskell's work ethic and the pair forge a friendship and business relationship that finds Haskell eventually owning his own store.
When his wife Leah suddenly arrives it's a bit of a shock to the Perrys, but over time a deep and lasting bond is formed between them, despite their obvious cultural differences. Soon thereafter, the Harelik family is blessed with three sons, one of whom is lovingly named after Mr. Perry. The fly in the ointment arrives as war comes to Europe and Haskell's worldly concerns clash with Milton isolationist beliefs. But, though both men are stubborn as mules, there's an underlying respect that really never dissipates, even as Milton succumbs to illness and never seems to lose his curmudgeonly demeanor.
Robert Thibault is simply astounding as Haskell, producing a believably thick accent that fades ever so slightly as he ages and gains a better grasp of the vernacular. He's matched step for step by Michelle Hand as his wife Leah, who initially wants to find a home where the community would be more open to them, and where their religion would be better served, but who finds herself growing more and more accustomed to her new surroundings. Gary Wayne Barker and Peggy Billo as Milton and Ima, respectively, are nicely paired with Hand and Thibault, providing a distinctly American, and Texan, presence for them to play off of. Barker's foul-mouthed but fair-minded Milton is neatly balanced by Billo's friendly and curious Ima. Simply stated, it's a perfect cast.
Edward Coffield's direction is masterfully executed, and there's not a single false note or maudlin moment to be found in this good-natured, humorous and moving presentation. Josh Smith provides the rustic set and dramatic lighting that captures the feel of a small Texas town with remarkable economy. Photo projections illuminate the backstory and set the mood for each scene.
The New Jewish Theatre's production of The Immigrant provides a sparkling and joyful evening of theatre, and it continues through June 19, 2011.
Photo credit: John Lamb