Wednesday, June 8, 2011

THE IMMIGRANT • New Jewish Theatre

Not all Jews who escaped the pervasive violence in Russia ended up in Manhattan's Lower East side.  About 10,000 ended up in Galveston, Texas through a resettlement program called the Galveston Movement.  The New Jewish Theatre closes its season with THE IMMIGRANT, directed by Edward Coffield, a play that serves as a tribute to the playwright's grandparents, Haskell and Leah Harelik and their migration to Hamilton, Texas.

The set (Josh Smith) draws you in -- a warm, rustic cedar paneled framing and a thrust stage.  In addition to the title being projected onto the back of the set, the play begins with projections that set up the story that include real photos from the Harelik family album as well as photos from the harrowing journey to America.

Michelle Hand (Leah) and Robert Thibaut (Haskell).
Photo credit: John Lamb
When Haskell (Robert Thibaut) finally arrives in the small town of Hamilton, barely able to speak any English, he's forced to try to scratch out a living selling bananas to the locals.  One of the locals, a devout Baptist named Ima Perry (Peggy Billo), wants to try to help this poor guy, but her husband Milton (Gary Wayne Barker), the local banker, is a little leery.  She eventually wears Milton down, telling him that they "should behave like Christians", and he agrees to let Haskell stay with them for a few days.  Once Ima finds out that Haskell is Jewish -- the only one in town -- she starts to cool to the idea, but her husband insists that a deal's a deal, so Haskell takes a room upstairs.  While Haskell secretly sends money home and writes to his wife back in Russia, Milton takes an interest in trying to help Haskell's business grow, and with a little financial help, Haskell goes from selling bananas to selling vegetables to opening a small goods store.  After some time, he's joined by his wife Leah (Michelle Hand), to the Perrys' surprise.  It takes her longer to settle in to her new environment, and she's fearful about the fact that Haskell has allowed some of their Jewish traditions to slip.  Haskell becomes more successful and they move out of the Perrys' house and into the attic above the store.  Leah still feels like a fish out of water, yet their friendship with the Perrys continues to grow, although it does so with a little awkwardness every now and then.  They still manage to uncover similarities between them and a kind of understanding, especially among the women.  When Leah is pregnant with the first of three children, there's a nice scene between her and Ima where they discover their shared belief in superstition when they both simultaneously throw salt over their shoulders.

Peggy Billo (Ima), Robert Thibaut (Haskell),
Michelle Hand (Leah) and Gary Wayne Barker (Milton).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Several years go by before an argument arises during the Hareliks' Sabbath dinner.  It stems from Haskell and Milton's opposing views about whether or not the United States should join allied forces against Hitler.  There's a reason they say don't talk politics at the dinner table…

Here's where the play gets a little uneven for me.  For one thing, it seems as though it's the Perrys first time over to the Hareliks' for Sabbath dinner, even after years of friendship.  Also, the ensuing blow-up seems to kind of come out of nowhere.  I can understand political views remaining largely unknown until the subject is forced, but still.  Maybe it goes to show that although people can, and do develop relationships despite obvious differences, perhaps there are some cultural differences that just can't quite be bridged in Hamilton Texas, "Where the world ends at the city limits…"  Anyway, the rift leaves a scar on the friendship of the men, although the play ends on a hopeful note.

Robert Thibaut (Haskell),
in back Gary Wayne Barker (Milton) and
Peggy Billo (Ima).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Strong and sincere performances from the Perrys -- Ima, a very funny Peggy Billo, and Milton, a stoic Gary Wayne Barker.  Robert Thibaut gives Haskell a ton of heart and is very likable, and it was satisfying to watch the development of Michelle Hand's Leah during the play.  They all inhabit their characters beautifully.  Josh Smith's set and lighting create an inviting tone, and the costumes by Michele Siler nicely informed the characters.  Great job by the dialect and Yiddish coaches too, Nancy Bell and Thelma Edelstein respectively.  It's going on at the New Jewish Theatre until the 19th.


Written by Mark Harelik
Directed by Edward Coffield
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through June 19 | tickets: $32 - $34
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm 

Robert Thibaut (Haskell), Michelle Hand (Leah), Gary Wayne Barker* (Milton) and Peggy Billo* (Ima).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Josh Smith; lighting design by Josh Smith; sound design by Josh Limpert; costume design by Michele Siler; wigs by Tara McCarthy; projection coordinator, Mark Wilson & Tyler Linke; dialect coach, Nancy Bell; Yiddish coach, Thelma Edelstein; dramaturg, Andrea Braun; stage manager: Champe Leary*.

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