A relatable ‘coming to America’ story centered on two very different couples

A relatable ‘coming to America’ story centered on two very different couples

Playwright Mark Harelik’s grandfather emigrated from his native Russia in 1909.

Harelik’s “The Immigrant,” which centers on the patriarch’s efforts to not only adapt but to soar in his new homeland, debuted in 1985. Yet the heartfelt family drama, at George Street Playhouse through April 7, is as relevant today as it was more than 30 years ago, director Jim Jack said.

“A big part of this story is how you find a home, how you build a home,” said Jack, who is also George Street’s director of outreach and education. “The story has an exceptional amount of universality in terms of how many of us had an ancestor who traveled from Europe or elsewhere to live here. The freedoms and privileges we have now came through the sacrifices of others.”

Haskell Harelik was fleeing anti-Jewish pograms when he arrived at the Port of Galveston in the first decade of the 20th century. He settled in the small central Texas town of Hamilton — today, the population is 3,000, about three times what it was when Harelik arrived there– where there were no other Jews or places where he could celebrate this faith.

Playwright Mark Harelik grew up hearing his grandparents’ tell stories of their early lives. In addition to the play, he also adapted their stories into a chamber musical that had a brief run off-Broadway in 2004.

As the playwright wrote before one production of “The Immigrant:” “… the hero of this quotidian legend was my grandfather Haskell. I could almost picture him – The young Jew forced to carry his life in his pocket – his religion, his aspirations, his search for safety and stability, and (strangely the most vivid image of all) me. I could picture myself in his pocket. He was bringing my life to this place – this great open space, this unimaginable future that I live in now.”

The fictional Haskell (Benjamin Pelteson), like the real-life inspiration, begins building a life by selling bananas from a wheelbarrow. The Perrys, an influential Christian couple (Gretchen Hall and R. Ward Duffy), take Haskell under their wing, investing in his business and, perhaps more importantly, giving him social protection. Haskell is soon able to bring his wife (Lauriel Friedman) to Texas. He opens a dry goods store and becomes a proud American citizen who shares his love of country in his three sons.

“The fabric of this country has been interwoven with the passion of immigrants throughout time,” Jack said. “The play looks at what can happen when you provide opportunity and compassion to others who are different from yourself and why it’s important to do so to those fleeing violence instead of just taking care of our own. That’s central to that moment in time, it’s central to the time we’re in now.”

To prepare for the role of Haskell, Pelteson worked with a dialect coach to ensure proper Yiddish pronunciations. The rhythms and cadences of Texas were re-enforced by director Jack, whose grandparents are from East Texas. In fact, Jack found multiple links between his background and Harelik’s: He cherishes a quilt his great-grandmother made that is embroidered with the names of the family’s babies. Jack’s wife is of Russian-Jewish descent and her family’s quilt, centered with a Star of David, also has a place of pride in the family home.

“You always want to find yourself in the story and you want to have the audience to find themselves in the story, but this one happened to be aligned with my personal history,” said Jack, who credits his grandmother, a drama teacher in East Texas, for fostering his love of theater. ” I felt very close to this story in terms of the sacrifices my wife’s family went through and my own family made to provide the life we currently have.”

The story-telling is enhanced by the use of Harelik’s family photos and other documents, like a newspaper ad for the family dry cleaning store circa 1938.

“The images give us great context,” Jack said. “While this is a documentary-style piece of theater, it’s a very rich and a moving look at the challenges of assimilation.”

THE IMMIGRANT

George Street Playhouse

9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick

Tickets: $25, available online at https:// georgestplayhouse.org. Through April 7.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at nataliepompilio@yahoo.com. Find her on Twitter @nataliepompilio. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.

Published at Fri, 15 Mar 2019 15:53:17 +0000