Reviewed by Judy Richter
In many ways, the story of America is the story of immigrants. Wave after wave of them have come to the United States, some seeking refuge from oppression, war or disaster in their native lands, all seeking to make a better life for themselves and their families. Unless our ancestors were here when the first explorers arrived several centuries ago, we all can trace our roots back to immigrants.
One such American who has traced his roots is playwright/actor Mark Harelik, whose Jewish grandfather immigrated to the tiny town of Hamilton, Texas, in 1909, and later was joined by his grandmother. Harelik details his grandparents' experiences in "The Immigrant," a 1985 work being staged by San Jose Repertory Theatre. Bay Area theatergoers may recall that Harelik starred in the 1988 production by American Conservatory Theater, where he was a member of the acting company.
Haskell Harelik arrived in Hamilton in 1909 as part of the Galveston Movement, or Galveston Plan, an effort conceived by leading Jewish Americans to divert Eastern European Jews to the American heartland to take some of the pressure off Eastern cities, especially New York. Consequently, thousands of Jews fleeing the pogroms arrived in the United States via Galveston, Texas, between 1907 and 1914.
As the play opens, the newly arrived Haskell (Adam Richman) is wearily pushing a wheelbarrow full of bananas, which he sells door to door for a penny apiece. He knows virtually no English, but somehow he and housewife Ima Perry (Nancy Carlin) manage to communicate. Ima, who is a devout Baptist, and her husband, the churchless Milton (Dan Hiatt), the town banker, allow Haskell to stay in a spare room in their house. When they see how hard he works, Milton lends him money to buy a horse-drawn cart and sell a variety of produce. Eventually, Haskell opens a dry goods store in town. In the meantime, he has saved enough money to send for his wife, Leah (Anney Giobbe). The Hareliks soon have a house of their own and fill it with three sons.
While the play is about the Hareliks' assimilation in a town where they're not only foreigners but also the only Jews, it's also about the Perrys and their efforts to understand and help them. In the process, they all learn from each other despite some bumps along the road. One of the most touching scenes occurs at the start of the second act as Leah, pregnant with her first son and terribly homesick, helps Ima in the kitchen. As they peel and chop vegetables, they talk and realize that some of their superstitions and the way they do things are very similar. In the process, they become closer.
Another memorable scene finds the Perrys joining the Hareliks for a Sabbath dinner in 1939. The conversation becomes heated as the men begin talking about events in Europe. Milton feels that it's a European conflict and that the United States should stay out. Haskell says Hitler's atrocities are too terrible for the United States to ignore. This argument leads to a rift that remains for several years, until Haskell seeks reconciliation shortly before the now-enfeebled Milton's death. Milton remains silent, seemingly unbending, until Haskell gives up and starts to leave. "Goodbye," Milton says -- one word that erases all the bitter feelings.
Such scenes give the play its power as director John McCluggage and his excellent cast bring these characters to life. Scott Weldin's simple set lends a sense of place and time, aided by Michael Palumbo's lighting, B Modern's costumes and Steve Schoenbeck's sound. It's an intimate, often humorous, ultimately moving play that speaks eloquently to the American immigrant experience.