I am a Jewish transplant to Texas who married a shiksa (a non-Jewish woman) from small-town Texas. Just last month, I related to my mother-in-law the story of Hanukkah, after which she told me that she didn’t understand why there has been so much prejudice, historically, against the Jewish people. At the time, I had no answer, but in the weeks since I realized what I should have said: “For the same reason that there’s so much prejudice today against Muslims and immigrants; people are scared of the unfamiliar.”
Mark Harelik’s moving and nuanced play “The Immigrant” holds a much more poetic, if similarly shaded, answer to that same question, which makes Austin Playhouse’s new production of it so timely and important. After staging the same play 28 years ago, director Don Toner felt the time was right to remount it, explaining on the company’s website that, “With all the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of the White House these days, it is good to be reminded that this country was built by immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their families.”
Although it certainly heralds these values, “The Immigrant” is far from anti-Trump agit-prop. Rather, it is the story of Harelik’s own grandfather, Haskell Harelik, a poor Russian immigrant who came to America in order to escape the pogroms that threatened the Jewish people there. Instead of entering the country through Ellis Island into the crowded tenements of New York City, Haskell came to the United States in 1909 through the port of Galveston, ending up in the small town of Hamilton.
“The Immigrant” tells the story of Haskell’s experience in Hamilton as he grew from an itinerant banana salesman to a dry goods merchant who was a pillar of the community. This transformation was possible because of the help of banker Milton Perry and his wife, Ima, and Haskell’s relationship with the couple — as well as with his own wife, Leah, whom he was eventually able to afford to bring over to America — forms the heart of the play.
“The Immigrant” is a rather simple text, with no stylistic flourishes to hide behind. It relies entirely upon the honesty of its performers, and Austin Playhouse’s production is blessed with a dynamite foursome. Playhouse company members Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams are as strong as ever in the roles of Milton and Ima, mixing Texas charm and openness with a dash of conservatism that makes each of them believable. Estrella Saldaña, as Leah, is equally adept at playing the newcomer to America, scared of losing her culture, as she is at depicting the established matron pushing her husband towards the forgiveness of his grievances.
As the titular immigrant, Joseph Garlock gives a breathtaking performance. His nuanced portrayal of Haskell undergoes an endless series of permutations throughout the play, and the kindness, humor and heart with which he imbues the character brings the audience along on his emotional journey from Yiddish-speaking banana-peddler to anxious and forcefully opinionated family man. Garlock evokes mythic resonance that speaks to the immigrant histories in all of our family trees, summoning the universal through his attention to the particular.
Although it is a small, contained story about one man’s journey, the play’s implications about the nature and essence of American community and family (both biological and chosen) speak volumes in today’s world. It is a vital contribution to one of the most important contemporary public conversations, and one that makes its case through sympathy and humanity rather than virulence. It is, in short, not to be missed.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 28
Where: ACC’s Highland Campus, 6001 Airport Blvd.