Theater Review: THE IMMIGRANT (Sierra Madre Playhouse in Los Angeles)

by Tony Frankel on May 11, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles

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BLENDING BANANAS AND BORSCHT

Mark Harelik’s 1985 play The Immigrant is based on the story of his grandparents, Haskell and Leah Gorehlik, immigrants from Russia who settled in the tiny central-Texas town of Hamilton in 1909, and were the only Jews there. Haskell has arrived in America to escape the pogroms; now, he must gather enough money to send for his wife. He pulls up his pushcart loaded with bananas and all his earthly goods to the front door of the banker Milton Perry and his wife, Ima, and asks in Yiddish for water and a place to stay. After linguistic cross-purposes, Milton, grumpily yielding to Ima’s persuasion, takes Haskell in. When Ima discovers that Haskell is not only a stranger, whom Christian charity must succor, but also a Jew, the deal is nearly off. But Milton abides by his word, and the rest — a heartwarming success story involving children and assimilation — is Harelik family history. At the Sierra Madre Playhouse, Simon Levy’s sensitive direction and Matthew G. Hill’s dynamic use of multi-media turn this family tribute into a charming, thoughtful evening.

Even with its sentimentality, the 155 minutes of this two-act four-hander fly by. Especially riveting is the second act 1930s Sabbath dinner in which Haskell and Leah play host to Milton and Ima (although I wondered why it took so long for their supporters to attend this ritual). By now Haskell is operating a successful dry-goods store. The conversation turns to Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Milton is an isolationist who does not want to see America — and especially not Texas — overrun by aliens. Haskell is much more sympathetic to the plight of European Jews, and less sympathetic to the notion that he must continue to owe a debt of gratitude to Milton for having salvaged his life. Here, The Immigrant truly finds its voice. No longer are we perusing the pages of someone else’s photo album; now, the play takes on a universal debate.

Stuart W. Howard is nuanced and impulsive as the Texas banker. Kaye Kittrell is frankly remarkable as his compassionate wife; she steals your heart in every scene. Sigi Gradwohl starts off almost histrionic as Haskell’s wife, Leah, but builds to a deeply compassionate and memorable portrait of a woman conflicted by assimilation. Adam Lebowitz-Lockard’s title-role portrayal instills the play with its spirit — from the meek, submissive immigrant to a mensch of conviction, his rich journey is always authentic. This story of a life fulfilled in America is definitely worth seeing.

photos by Gina Long

The Immigrant
Sierra Madre Playhouse
87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2:30;
added matinee Sat May 26 at 2:30
ends on May 26, 2018
for tickets, call 626.355.4318
or visit Sierra Madre Playhouse

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Simon Levy May 11, 2018 at 9:30 pm

Thanks, Tony, for your lovely and insightful review. So glad the play resonated for you. If only the world today had this kind of compassion and egalitarianism. Ever onward!

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