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February 8-14, 2006

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The Immigrant

Photograph by Pat Kirk
Produce Man: X Adam Richman plays Haskell harelik in 'The Immigrant.'

New Worlders

SJ Rep's 'Immigrant' tells a familiar tale of arrival


By Marianne Messina

IN THE NEW San Jose Repertory Theatre production, The Immigrant, industrious Russian Jew Haskell Harelik (Adam Richman) arrives in the small Texas town of Hamilton ("population one thousand and two hundred") selling bananas from a pushcart. Before long, the good Christian townsfolk are buying more bananas than they know what to do with. They're giving away banana muffins and getting banana bread in return.

Destined for merchant success, Haskell obtains a sleek pushcart upgrade with a bank loan from newfound friend and silent partner, banker Milton Perry (Dan Hiatt), and begins to diversify. Before long, he's introducing Mrs. Ima Perry (Nancy Carlin) and the townswomen to produce exotica. "Hard to choke," he informs Mrs. Perry, introducing his latest product, an artichoke. "If you figure out how to cook it—no charge."

The Immigrant continues on in this somewhat uneventful but smiley fashion throughout the first act. For example, the two wives—Ima Perry and Lea Harelik (Anney Giobbe)—compare cultural "old-wives tales" while chopping vegetables for dinner. Behind the action, scenic designer Scott Weldin's omnipresent panorama draws the eye to plains and fields that reach to the horizon. And in the vast openness, you can almost sense the wild optimism that would allow someone to uproot from the familiar and replant in an alien world. Weldin reinforces the smallness of the human world against the land with his sparse setting: a skeletal front porch that rotates dead center stage. Straight on, it is the Perry home, where, in 1909, Mrs. Perry is at first baffled—feeling both charitable and leery—by Haskell. The same set piece, rotated slightly, becomes Haskell's home 10 years later (the date flashes above right on a small drop screen).

Ingeniously, that slight skew of a set piece creates the impression of a very different home. In fact, the set embodies more ingenuity than the script. Inspired by a family photo album, playwright Mark Harelik seeks to chronicle the entire lives of his grandparents, and by the second act, he is compressing whole eras into brush strokes. As is typical for the immigrant tale, the story omits the Russian portion of the Hareliks' lives (not counting sketchy references)—and thus their culture in its original context.

That tactic also leaves no context for Lea's complaints and resistance in her new home. It also leaves out all the elements of good drama: the love story (protagonists meet and fall in love), the hardships (individual escapes vicious pogroms) and any basis for good conflict. Haskell's dream meets little opposition. By the second act, when Haskell lets us know he's tired of feeling indebted to Milton, the strong emotion seems to come from nowhere.

Solid acting and warm characters help to make these omissions less noticeable. Dan Hiatt brings a special low-key charisma to Milton Perry, at once cagey, generous, laconic, dry-witted, unflappable, pragmatic, softhearted—a different aspect of this prismatic character might show at any glance. A play without teeth, The Immigrant gives us feel-good charm without the hard work (what would our forefathers say?). For some, good humor and good intentions will satisfy because The Immigrant does bring out a side of the story that doesn't usually get a lot of play in this genre. No matter what scrappers, hard-workers and risk-takes our immigrant forbears were and are, the immigrant nation doesn't happen without openness and kindness on the other end.


The Immigrant, a San Jose Rep production, plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (2pm only Feb. 26) through Feb. 26 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are are $22-$50. (408.367.7255)

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