Mark Harelik’s The Immigrant, an affectionate memory play about his Russian Jewish grandfather’s new life in small-town Texas, has been produced frequently all over the United States – South Florida included.
Written in 1985, then reworked as a chamber musical in 2000, The Immigrant has broad, enduring appeal because of the folk-tale warmth Harelik brings to his family story and because so many of its issues resonate in this country of immigrants. Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs is just one of the area theaters that has presented The Immigrant in the past, and now the company has returned to tiny, turn-of-the-century Hamilton, Tex., with a new production of the play.
Harelik follows his grandfather’s flight from Russian pogroms to resettlement and struggle in early 20th century Texas. Speaking just a few words of English, Haskell Harelik (Andrew Wind) totes bananas door-to-door in a wheelbarrow, selling his produce for a penny apiece. He walks miles just to get the bananas, many more to sell them. But his toil is in service of a dream: When he has saved enough money, he’ll send for his young wife Leah (Anne Chamberlain), and their new life will truly begin.
Haskell has the good fortune to encounter Ima Perry (Janet Weakley) and her banker-husband Milton (Ken Clement) on his rounds. Ima is a God-fearing Christian lady, Milton stubborn in his refusal to yield to his wife’s pleas that he embrace Jesus as his savior. However improbably, given their different backgrounds and beliefs, Haskell and the Perrys forge a long-lasting friendship, perhaps because of the roles the immigrant and the older Texans play in each other’s lives. For Haskell and later Leah, Ima and Milton become mentors and surrogate parents. For the Perrys, estranged from their only surviving son, Haskell fills a loneliness they don’t acknowledge.
At Stage Door, director Hugh M. Murphy draws particularly strong performances from the younger actors playing the Hareliks. Wind and Chamberlain both handle the Yiddish that their characters speak early on quite well. And both mature convincingly, changing from wary newcomers to thrilled new parents (times three, each baby a boy) to successful citizens whose sons are about to defend their American homeland in World War II.
Weakley and Clement are good actors stuck playing folksy stereotypes, and Weakley’s wig doesn’t look like a hairstyle a rural Texan would have sported in 1909. Clement makes Milton a bombastic guy with a heart of gold (the sound level for all the actors is often ear-splitting), but finally, at the play’s end and with a single word, he achieves a moment that seems real and touching.
Stage Door’s new production of The Immigrant is, like the play itself, a modest thing. But it connects with its receptive audiences because of the specific traditions and universal experiences it celebrates..