Hot on the heels of its fevered staging of Clifford Odets' urban drama Awake and Sing! New Jewish Theatre is mounting another supremely entertaining production. The ambitions of Mark Harelik's 1985 family memoir The Immigrant are slighter than those of Odets' urgent tract: Odets wanted to use theater as an instrument by which to transform the world; Harelik is simply paying tribute to his grandfather. But at its best, The Immigrant is, in its own minimalist way, charming and thoughtful.
Subtitled "A Hamilton County Album," The Immigrant begins with a series of enlargements of old family photos that chronicle the epic journey in 1909 of Haskell Harelik, a young Jew who escapes the destructive pogroms in Russia and emigrates to Hamilton, an obscure east Texas town ("population one thousand and two hundred," he informs us) that is nowhere except on the map. No cathartic Statue of Liberty moment for Haskell. He enters the country through Galveston, which, an old photo proclaims, was once "the Treasure Island of America." When the play proper begins, Haskell is an isolated man in a far country. Unable to speak English, he subsists by hawking bananas for pennies. Thanks to the evocative lighting by scenic designer Josh Smith and the spare staging by director Edward Coffield, these early scenes suggest daguerrotypes come to life.
Indeed, all of Act One has the feel of a living album. This microscopic story has the precision of photography. This is, after all, the playwright's family story; he knows the territory. (Mark Harelik was born and raised in Hamilton.) But the play is also helped because its author is an actor. (You might recall Harelik as Milos, the incompetent tennis pro, on Seinfeld.) He knows how to write for actors. Because there is almost no unnecessary repetition in Harelik's narrative, it's easy to become absorbed in this account of how Haskell is rescued by Milton Perry, a crusty Hamilton banker, and his loving wife Ima, a fervent Baptist. (In time we will learn that Ima is also a refugee of sorts, from Canton, Missouri.)
The methodical pace changes in Act Two when time must pass more quickly. Haskell's wife, Leah, has arrived, and sons are being born. The montage sequence as Haskell and Milton wait out the three births is the script's sole flirtation with cloying cuteness. But The Immigrant makes amends for this questionable lapse with a 1930s Sabbath dinner scene in which Haskell and Leah play host to the slightly uncomfortable Milton and Ima. By now Haskell is operating a successful dry-goods store. No longer is he in debt to anyone. (At least not financially.) The conversation turns to Hitler's persecution of Jews. Milton is an isolationist who does not want to see America — and especially not Texas — overrun by aliens. Haskell is much more sympathetic to the plight of European Jews, less sympathetic to the notion that he must continue to owe a debt of gratitude to Milton for having salvaged his life. Here, in this scene, The Immigrant finds its voice. No longer are we perusing the pages of someone else's photo album. This debate continues to affect us all.
New Jewish Theatre is giving The Immigrant an impeccable production. Under Coffield's calibrated, detailed direction, all four performances are superb. Gary Wayne Barker's Texas banker is nuanced and unpredictable. As his compassionate wife, Peggy Billo is a marvel. Your heart goes out to her in every scene. Michelle Hand is equally astonishing as Haskell's wife, Leah. Gifted with character-revealing wigs designed by Tara McCarthy, Hand then builds on the externals to create a memorable portrait of a woman conflicted by assimilation. Robert Thibaut's title-role portrayal instills the play with its spirit. By evening's end, when he is no longer the meek, submissive immigrant he was at the outset, my personal feelings toward Haskell had grown ambivalent. But thanks to the conviction that is the foundation of Thibaut's journey, this immigrant remained a character worth knowing. His story of a life fulfilled in America is worth hearing.