NJT skillfully revisits ‘The Immigrant’

Michelle Hand and Robert Thibaut star in the New Jewish Theatre production of ‘The Immigrant.’ Photo by John Lamb.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“The Immigrant,” a warm, nostalgic, almost sepia-toned play by Mark Harelik, has been brought back to the stage of the New Jewish Theatre to close out its 2010-2011 season. Over the past few years, “The Immigrant” has appeared previously on the NJT stage and also at the Repertory Theatre’s Studio Theatre. The current NJT production retains the freshness and emotional impact of the previous productions, with skilled direction by Edward Coffield and fine performances by the four-member cast. Like “Fiddler on the Roof” and other classics of the Jewish stage, “The Immigrant” has taken on a timeless quality since it had its premiere in 1985.

Harelik wrote the play, which he conceived with Randal Myler, based on the real-life experiences of Harelik’s beloved and patriarchal grandfather, Haskell Harelik. He escaped the horrific Czarist pogroms for the “Goldene Medina” or “Golden Land” along with hundreds of thousands of other East European Jews who sought new lives in America between 1880 and the 1920s. But Haskell Harelik was not part of the mythic experience of those who filled the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. The play, wonderfully augmented with vintage photographs from the Harelik family album projected on the back wall of the stage, deals with the much lesser-known group of 10,000 Jewish immigrants who were diverted to the port of Galveston, Texas between 1907 and 1914.

Robert Thibaut does an excellent job portraying Harelik, who ends up in the tiny Texas town of Hamilton. He is seen at first as a fearful, shy and sweet young Jewish immigrant trying to adjust to his new home and his job as a struggling banana salesman. He speaks only Yiddish and desperately misses his dear wife Leah who is still in Russia awaiting her transport papers. In the course of the play, Harelik evolves from the insecure New American into a successful storeowner, who with Leah (a fine performance by Michelle Hand) has three sons.

Helping Harelik through his transformation is the town’s banker, Milton Perry (Gary Wayne Barker) and his down-to-earth wife Ima (Peggy Billo). The empathic Ima immediately wants to assist the pathetic Harelik who asks for “vasser” (water) on a scorching hot day.

Billo hits just the right balance between a compassionate, somewhat superstitious housewife, and a practical, rural road-smart Texas matron. Barker perfectly depicts the Type-A banker, a tough-as-nails pillar of the community who takes Harelik under his wing.

We follow the two couples over a period of decades, with the passage of time reflected in the slides on the wall. While the relationship between the couples is mostly mutually nourishing, there are undercurrents of impatience on the part of Harelik, who no longer wants to be treated as a frightened immigrant. At one key point, his resentment of his role as the permanently indebted immigrant explodes in a furious argument between him and Perry, much to the distress of their loving wives who have become best friends. The moment of high drama, with sharp exchanges of emotionally charged feelings, gives the play a needed jolt to keep it from becoming “too sweet” to be taken seriously as good drama.

The blending of cultures and practices between the Russian Jewish immigrants and the Texas natives is both amusing and symbolic of the remarkable adaptability of European Jews to their new lives in any part of America in which they settle. Leah, who at first finds the English language impossibly difficult and even ludicrous, eventually learns how to say “howdy” to her neighbors. Even in the remote rural town of Hamilton, Harelik is still disturbed over the news from Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism. He wants the U.S. to get involved, while conservative, isolationist Perry does not want FDR “sticking our nose in other people’s business.”

As an interesting period piece and footnote to the Jewish immigrant experience, “The Immigrant” informs about a little-known group of Russian Jews and where they settled in America. Through the biographical, fact-based script, playwright Mark Harelik provides a dramatic vehicle for telling that story, and the NJT director, cast and production crew provide an evening of solid entertainment.

‘The Immigrant’

When: : Through June 19

Where: Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre in the Staenberg Family Center Arts & Education Building of the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

How much: $32-$36

More info: For information on show times and days and ticket prices, call 314-442-3257. Tickets are available at www.newjewishtheatre.org, or 314-442-3283.