To say that you should see “The Immigrant” because it is relevant to the immigration debate that is currently such a big part of our national politics is doing it a disservice. You should see the play — which is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through April 7 — because it is an immensely powerful, universally profound work of art. The politics is just a small part of it.
In other words, this is a particularly good time to see “The Immigrant,” because of its topical relevance. But any other time would be a good time, as well.
Actor and playwright Mark Harelik wrote “The Immigrant” in 1985, inspired by the experiences of his own grandfather. It was later made into a musical that ran off-Broadway and elsewhere, but George Street is presenting the original, non-musical version. The director is Jim Jack, who has recently helmed two similarly impressive plays at George Street (“My Name Is Asher Lev,” in 2016, and “Trying,” last year).
The play begins in 1909, with the harrowing journey of Haskell Harelik (Benjamin Pelteson) from Russia to the United States, where he has come to escape the danger of the pogroms. He arrives at the port city of Galveston, then settles in the Central Texas town of Hamilton. Supporting himself by selling bananas from a cart and speaking very little English, he is befriended by a Ima (Gretchen Hall), a housewife and devout, charitable Christian, and her somewhat reluctant husband, Milton (R. Ward Duffy). They agree to let him live with them until he’s able to afford his own place.
Milton, a banker, soon sees an opportunity in the hard-working, thrifty Haskell, and becomes his business partner. He backs Haskell, financially, and encourages him to upgrade from a small cart of bananas to a large one full of fruits and vegetables, and then a store of his own.
Haskell encounters some prejudice (perhaps not enough, though, for “The Immigrant” to be realistic for this place and time). But he stays focused on his business, and becomes successful enough to have his wife, Leah (Lauriel Friedman), follow him to Hamilton, and they start a family of their own. While Haskell does not mind that they’re the only Jewish family in Hamilton, Leah feels lost and alienated so far from their home and their community. But she eventually becomes more comfortable, and fluent in English; in one wonderful scene, she and Ima bond in the kitchen, comparing their traditions and laughing over their respective cultures’ superstitions.
Haskell and Leah are living on their own, now. But they remain grateful to Milton and Ima, so much so that they name one of their three sons after Milton.
The play jumps ahead to the World War II era. Haskell and Leah are now prosperous, and proud that their thoroughly assimilated, twang-accented sons are soldiers. They feel a moral imperative to help Jews who weren’t able escape oppression, as they did. Over a Sabbath dinner that they invite Milton and Ima to, Milton takes a more isolationist position, expressing some deeply rooted prejudices in the process.
Haskell, no longer the meek immigrant he once was, stands up to Milton, and they clash, and are unable to reconcile until years later, when the once-virile Milton has become old and feeble. For all their differences, they have been through a lot together, and have become a sort of extended family.
It’s a wonderful, epic story. And, needless to say, a quintessentially American story. I highly recommend it.
“The Immigrant” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through April 7. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.