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Tuesday, 07 June 2011 00:01

Welcome to Texas

Written by Bob Wilcox
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newjewishtheatre.org
newjewishtheatre.org

The Immigrant, now at the New Jewish Theatre, makes you feel warm-hearted and good about America and Americans without feeling embarrassed about feeling warm-hearted and good about America and Americans. It tells the true story of Haskell Harelik, a Russian Jew who leaves the land of Cossacks and pogroms for a safer and better life in the U.S., and winds up in the small town of Hamilton, Texas. Befriended by the local banker and his wife, Harelik progresses from selling bananas from a cart to owning a prosperous dry goods and variety store.

Playwright Mark Harelik, grandson of Haskell, recounts some 70 years of his forbear's life. He puts in some bumps along the way – a little harassing early on by some antisemitic – or simply anti-foreign – good old boys, his wife's longing to live in a community of Jews, even a falling-out with his banker friend about U.S. pre-war intervention in the Nazis' persecution of the Jews. But the two wives bond in the kitchen, discovering similar superstitious rituals they've inherited, and the Hareliks' name their third son for the banker. It's all warm without being too fuzzy.

At the New Jewish Theatre, Robert Thibaut gives us both Haskell's trepidation and his determination as he conquers new customs and a new language. Dialect coach Nancy Bell helps with the convincingly Yiddish cast to his speech and that of Michelle Hand, who turns in another rich and lovely performance as his wife. Peggy Billo's banker's wife can be both tender-hearted and practical. As the banker, Gary Wayne Barker keeps the tender heart mostly hidden under the practical, with an appreciatively wry sense of humor.

Director Edward Coffield guides the production with a sure hand. Wood planks form the floor and wall of Josh Smith's set; Smith also did the lighting. Pictures of the real Hareliks and their store and their boys punctuate the story, projected by Mark Wilson and Tyler Linke on that slightly rough wall. Michele Siler's costumes and Tara McCarthy's wigs follow the 20th century's changing styles, as does Josh Limpert's sound design.

We all know this story in its many manifestations. Mark Harelik's The Immigrant at the New Jewish Theatre is a particularly well-done retelling of it.

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