Review: THE IMMIGRANT Speaks to the Journey Faced by Those Searching for Freedom in a Strange New Land
Today it seems the topic of immigration is in the news daily, which was probably the case in the at the turn of the 20th Century when immigrants from around the world made their way to America in the hope of finding freedom and a better life for themselves and their descendants. Many were fleeing certain death if they stayed overseas, including thousands of Eastern Europeans of Jewish descent who were being forced out of their homes, gave up everything they owned, all the people they loved, and give whatever they could to earn the price of steerage ticket to freedom.
Director Simon Levy, who has won much acclaim for his current production of Chaim Potok's The Chosen at the Fountain Theatre, now brings his directorial insight on achieving assimilation into America to the Sierra Madre Playhouse's production of THE IMMIGRANT, written by Mark Harelik about his grandfather's struggle to survive as the only Jewish immigrant to settle in Hamilton, Texas in 1909. The play is a timely and touching meditation on parents and children, newcomers and natives, Christians and Jews, and on what it means to be an American.
In reality, unless you are a direct descendant of Native Americans, you are also an immigrant or a descendant of those from somewhere else who decided life would be better in the United States and did what it took to survive here. Certainly, I can look back just one generation to my father, who along with his mother, young brother and sister traveled by boat from Poland to New York in 1928, then moved on to Chicago where my grandfather had started a deli where they all worked. My father even told me stories of how he brought home friends from school during the Depression, offering them a meal when they had not eaten for days. It was his way of "giving back" he often told me, as was his service in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Similarly, THE IMMIGRANT centers on the young husband, Haskell Harelik (portrayed to authentic perfection by Adam Lebowitz-Lockard, himself a proud grandson of immigrants), who after immigrating to America in 1909, decided the hustle and bustle of the dirty, lower East side of New York City was not for him. He picked a ship going to Galveston, then made his way to Hamilton, Texas with a population of 1,200 people, none of whom had ever seen an Eastern European Jewish immigrant before and certainly had no comprehension of his Yiddish language. To earn pennies daily to send to his wife back in Russia, Haskell sells bananas from a wheelbarrow, walking miles in the hot Southern sun to bring the exotic fruit to many fine Southern Baptist ladies living in fine plantation style homes.
While this introduction to Haskell is being shared, historical scenes are projected on a set-crossing wall containing one door with a platform containing two small steps which scenic and projection designer extraordinaire Matthew G. Hill incorporates into the show in such amazing ways, it will take your breath away continuously as he transforms the setting from house to house, room to room, upstairs and down, with the one door always perfectly utilized as part of each scene. Be prepared to be amazed!
Luckily for Haskell, he literally stumbles into the yard of the town's banker, Milton Perry (Stuart W. Howard) and his very Christian wife Ima (Kaye Kittrell) whose great concern for Haskell's health allows her to not only buy all his bananas but to convince her husband to allow the poor and lonely, street-sleeping immigrant to move into their son's former bedroom. And I challenge you to not get a few tears in your eyes the moment Haskell starts kissing the walls in his new home, falling to the floor as his thanks God for his good fortune.
After working hard thanks to the banker's willingness to loan Haskell enough money to first expand his business into a horse-drawn fruit and vegetable wagon and then into a dry goods store, Haskell secretly sends for his wife Leah (the luminous Sigi Gradwohl who brilliantly reminded me of Carol Kane's immigrant wife in the film Hester Street), surprising his landlords and business partner upon her arrival as they never even knew he was married.
From this point on, these four remarkable actors move through these characters' years together, first as strangers speaking different languages and fearful of each other, into life-long friends who share in the birth of Haskell and Leah's children, the planting of family trees, and learning each other's religious beliefs, traditions, and superstitions. You will laugh, nod your heard in agreement, and shed a few tears during this gloriously heartfelt journey, thanks to all the talented members of the cast and crew, and the writer's ability to bring the life of his grandparents into crystal clear focus for us to experience.
Kudos to the rest of the technical staff who add such realism to all scenes as the years pass, from costumes designed by Shon LeBlanc, lighting designed by Derek Jones, sound design by Peter Bayne (especially the lovely chirping of a mockingbird), and props designed by Terri Roberts.
Don't miss this extraordinary look at a family's journey from hardship to living the American dream, through both heartbreak and wonder in THE IMMIGRANT on Friday and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2:30pm through May 26, 2018 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024. Box office: (626) 355-4318. Tickets $25-$40 at https://ci.ovationtix.com/35040/ where you can also learn more about the special events planned during the run of the show to focus light on the immigrant experience in America.
And for those lucky enough to attend on Sunday, May 6, stay after the matinee when playwright Mark Harelik will talk about the play and the actual family story that inspired it. Director Simon Levy and cast members will also join in the discussion.
Staged photo credit: Gina Long
Posed photo credit: John Dlugolecki
The mature man is Stuart W. Howard.
The younger man is Adam Lebowitz-Lockard.
The mature woman is Kaye Kittrell.
The younger woman is Sigi Gradwohl (in the head scarf).