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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Emotionally Moving Production of Mark Harelik's The Immigrant

Also see Richard's review of Theatre District

The Immigrant
Adam Richman and
Nancy Carlin

The San Jose Repertory Theatre is currently presenting Mark Harelik's original play The Immigrant, a wonderful Jewish immigrant success story. The playwright bases this lovely play on the life of his grandfather who sold penny bananas from a pushcart in the small town of Hamilton, Texas (population 1,203) during the early 1900s and his success in business with the help of a Christian banker and his wife.

Ten thousand Jewish immigrants from mid-Europe were allowed to immigrate to the United States during the first part of the 20th century.   Most went through the port of New York.  However, Jewish organizations thought it wiser to deflect some 1,000 Jews to the southern port of Galveston, Texas to stop a wave of anti-Semitism.   This was called the Galveston Movement, and Harelik's grandfather was part of that movement.

Several years ago, this touching play was made into a musical and played Off-Broadway, Chicago and Phoenix.  However, the Repertory's Artistic Director Timothy Near opted to present the piece without the music of Steven M. Alper and Sarah Knapp lyrics.  Director John McCluggage has inserted klezmer music, giving way to country fiddle Texas music as the play progresses from 1909 to 1954 in charming simple scenes involving the extraordinary talents of four actors.  

The Immigrant opens on an extended, simple stage with a versatile frame of a country porch in front of a stunning backdrop of a rolling prairie.  Scott Weldin's set design joins Michael Palumbo's lights and Steve Schoenbeck's sound, including galloping hooves, rattling wagons and cowboy music, in making this a memorable night in the theatre.

Jewish peddler Haskell Harelik (Adam Richman) is seen pushing his cart full of penny bananas across the stage that is lit like the blazing hot sun of Texas.  He stops at the house of Southern Baptist banker Milton Perry (Dan Hiatt) who is very suspicious of the disgruntled peddler.  All the man wants is a drink of water and, with very little knowledge of the English language, he manages to get that thought across.  The good banker's wife Ima (Nancy Carlin) appears and with Christian charity directs him to the well. That drink of water changes the course of the lives of the Jewish peddler and the Christian banker.

With the financial help of the banker Haskell goes on to become a successful business man in the selling of fruits and vegetables and finally dry goods to the townspeople.   he is able to bring his wife Leah (Anney Giobbe) over from the old country. However, she is distressed about abandoning their shtetl and kosher traditions to adapt to the American way of life. She slowly comes around to be a 100% American.

The Immigrant is a shining light of humanity and love of neighbors who are different.   The play is "schmaltzy" but it is good schmaltz in today's world of cutting edge dramas.  It gives a wonderful uplifting feeling. 

Director John McCluggage has four marvelous actors playing the Jewish and Christian couples.  Adam Richmond (New York Talk to Me Like the Rain and has appeared at the Mark Taper,  Guthrie Theatre, Yale Rep) as Haskell is exceptional as he slowly develops his character from a scruffy-looking person who only speaks Yiddish to a successful well-dressed English-speaking owner of a successful business in the '30s and '40s.

Dan Haitt (Hannah and Martin, Enchanted April, Noises Off) gives a wonderful performance as Milton, a no-nonsense banker with a heart of gold.  His performance is superbly layered as he advances into senility. Nancy Carlin (Nicholas Nickleby, Hannah and Martin) is enthralling in the role of the deeply religious banker's wife who firmly believes that the Christian way is to help your fellow man. Anney Giobbe (New York credits include Suburbia, Wonderful Time) is mesmeric as the Jewish wife from the old country who is distressed about losing her shtetl way of life.   Her performance is beautifully layered as she becomes a Texas woman. 

The Immigrant plays through February 26th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre,  101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose.   Tickets are available by calling their box office at 408-367-7255 or online at www.SJRep.com.  Their next production is The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow: An Instant Message with Excitable Music opening on March 18 through April 18th. 


Photo: Pat Kirk


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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