Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
“The Immigrant” was an affecting little play when it first surfaced a few years ago. Affecting, but also with historic significance. Writer/actor Mark Harelik wrote this piece as a tribute to his grandparents—and indeed it is their story.
Not all Russian Jewish immigrants to this country entered through the port of New York. At the turn of the century, several benevolent Jewish organizations thought it wiser to deflect the hordes of arriving Jewish immigrants to a southern port. The coastal cities, and particularly New York, could not absorb them, they felt, and could thus precipitate a wave of anti-Semitism. Hence the Galveston Movement was born, with philanthropist Jacob Schiff playing a leading role.
Mark Harelik’s grandfather Haskell was one such immigrant. Landing with other Russian Jews in Galveston, Texas, he set out across the countryside with a pushcart, selling bananas at a penny each. It was in Hamilton, Texas (pop. 1,203) that he stopped at a house to ask for water. That drink, and the help of that older Christian couple, changed the course of his life. The wife, in particular, was a woman who carried out her Christian principles, exuding warmth and charity. Is it an accident that the playwright has named her “Ima,” the Hebrew word for mother? Thus it was that Haskell Harelik settled in Hamilton, where he thrived, raised his family and ultimately owned the town’s department store. A typical Jewish immigrant success story. Only the geography was different.
Moving on, the play became a musical, having opened last year off-Broadway, And now this musical version launches the Westport Country Playhouse’s winter season. Does this work as a musical? In our view, it does not. The story stood on its own beautifully, in the original form, almost Biblical in feeling—and with no pretensions of musical grandeur. But now, both Steven M. Alper’s music and Sarah Knapp’s lyrics hobble, rather than enhance, the story. The music, granted, is occasionally haunting, lurking on the edge of an operatic style, but in no way memorable. Nor do the lyrics, with their repetitious lines, rise above the ordinary. What can be said in its favor is that it is a pocket-musical—small, understated, and tasteful. No overblown production numbers and flashy dancers.
Whatever the drawbacks of the musical itself, this is a fine production, under Tazewell Thompson’s clean, sharp-edged direction. The cast members (Beth Fowler, Dale Hensley, Kyra Miller, and Tally Sessions) are superb singers and performers who rise far above their material. Although it is a pleasure to hear each one sing, unfortunately those songs bring the play’s momentum to a grinding halt. Yet each spoken scene is on target, with actors aging in a subtle, appropriate manner, as the story unfolds over a lifetime.
Tazewell Thompson must be commended for daring to bring an ethnic piece to his theater, a piece which hammers home the Jewish immigrant experience. But one wishes he had bypassed this musical effort and had returned to the far more effective original play.
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 30, 2005