June 1, 2012
From “Immigrant” to American
There is no more archetypical American story than that of the greenhorn immigrant, who first ekes out a living by the sweat of his brow, works his way up and kvells as his children and grandchildren become 100 percent American doctors or lawyers – or writers.
Such is the story of “The Immigrant,” Mark Herelik’s play about his grandfather, Haskell Harelik, who left pogrom-ridden Russia in 1909 to settle as a fruit peddler in Hamilton, a small farming town on the Texas plains.
Dressed in black, with tallit and yarmulke and trying desperately to sell his bunch of bananas in Yiddish, Haskell couldn’t appear stranger to small-town WASPS if he had been a Martian time-traveler with antennas sticking out of his head.
Yet he finds an unexpected welcome in the home of Milton Perry, the town banker, and especially by the warm-hearted Ima, Perry’s wife.
At Ima’s urging, the Perrys even rent a room in the house to Haskell and the banker loans money to the peddler so he can open his own fruit store.
The odd but gradually ripening friendship is threatened when Haskell decides to bring his bride Leah over from the old country, who produces three children to enliven the once quiet and uncrowded home.
At the same time, the two couples discover that despite all good will, it is difficult to shake old stereotypes and expressions. Perry, signing a loan contract, assures Haskell that “I won’t Jew you down if you don’t Jew me down,” and Leah point out to Ima that, after all, “the Jews are God’s chosen people,”
One the other hand, there is no denying that Leah prepares a great Shabbes dinner, to which the Perrys are invited, but in the only attempt at interfaith dialogue, all hell breaks loose.
With Hitler saber-rattling in Europe and war looming on the horizon, Haskell argues passionately that the United States should open its borders to refugees. Perry counters just as fervently that Europe’s troubles are none of America’s business, and as the dispute gets louder, Perry storms out of the house.
“The Immigrant” ends of a bittersweet note and is carried, under Howard Teichman’s direction, by convincing performances in the current production by the West Coast Jewish Theatre through July 15 at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles.
The fine cast consists of Gary Patent as Haskell, Anthony Gruppuso as Perry, Cheryl David – a special delight – as Ima, and Dana Shaw as Leah.
“The Immigrant” bowed at the Taper Forum in 1991 as a regular play, but reprises now in a different incarnation as a musical, in which the actors/singers carry the plot forward through a kind of singing narrative.
For tickets and information, phone (323) 860-6620 or visit www.wcjt.org.