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Theater Review - An American tale

Emotion takes center stage in The Immigrant

Can you write a memoir that takes place before you were born? In The Immigrant, playwright Mark Harelik uses the stage to pay tribute to his family, particularly his grandfather, Haskell Harelik, a Russian Jew who spoke no English but immigrated to the Texas panhandle in 1909. When Theatrical Outfit's production of The Immigrant recounts Haskell's efforts to start a business and a family under the American way of life, the play feels like a series of stories brought out at holidays and get-togethers for generations.

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A family memoir can fit comfortably in a book or documentary form that permits flexibility in time and the inclusion of many voices. As a stage play, The Immigrant offers an undeniably affectionate tale of pursuing the American dream, but also a rather fitful structure as a drama. Director Susan Reid presents a polished take on material that doesn't seem to want to be a play.

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At first, you're not even sure if it is a play. The evening opens with a drawn-out, black-and-white slide show of Jewish life in Russia, including images of brutal anti-Semitic invaders and shipboard passage to the United States. When we finally see Haskell in the flesh (David Marshall Silverman), he's a quintessential stranger in an even stranger land — a black-garbed Yiddish speaker pushing a wheelbarrow of bananas around scorching Texas back roads. He knows only a few English words, but we catch a handful of Yiddish ones: When he gestures apologetically at his dirty face and hands, he shrugs, "Shmuts."

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Small-town banker Milton Perry (Bruce Evers) and his excitable wife, Ima (Jill Jane Clements), at first view Haskell with suspicion, but they eventually accept him as a lodger and a kind of surrogate son. As Haskell's business expands from wheelbarrow to fruit-and-vegetable cart to dry goods store, the play fosters a nostalgic, up-by-his-bootstraps quality, like episodes from a political candidate's official biography.

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Silverman makes Haskell such an optimistic go-getter, he seems scarcely moved by the tragedies of his early life in Russia or his hardships in America. As Haskell's Russian wife, Leah, Mira Hirsch has enough edge for both actors. While he's almost too eager to reinvent himself as an American, Leah reacts with fear at their new all-Christian community and her husband's apparent willingness to turn his back on his heritage. (The Immigrant parallels the Alliance Theatre's Bluish, in which spouses argue different perspectives on what it means to be a Jew.)

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Harelik examines how the immigration experience can transform not just the immigrant, but his newfound community as well. When Haskell faces bigotry in Texas, Ima re-evaluates her idea of what it means to be a Christian, and Milton sees through the falsity of Jewish stereotypes. Small incidents reveal universal details that touch the characters. A lighthearted scene finds Ima and Leah discovering that they share some of the same superstitions, despite their origins on opposite sides of the world.

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While Act One spans months, the second act leap-frogs over decades. The play's most tense moment comes when Haskell and Milton spar over whether the United States should join the fight against Hitler, and their argument of isolationism vs. interventionism has a modern-day wartime resonance. The scene feels true to the characters of both men, stemming from the awkwardness and resentments that extended periods of charity can foster. But it also feels out of sync with the milder tone shown in the rest of the play. The epilogue, narrated by an actor playing one of Haskell's sons, proves similarly out of place.

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Clements and Evers both are seasoned at playing recognizable Southern figures, and here they give funny, rich performances. As the play winds down, though, The Immigrant's use of delicate music, bird song and photos of the actual people feels like a sentimental shortcut. The Immigrant induces an emotional response because it concerns real people, rather than its effectiveness as a piece of stagecraft. Since The Immigrant does touch its audience's feelings, though, perhaps it's unfair to critique it for being too rooted in reality.