From Russian Jew to Regular Joe | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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From Russian Jew to Regular Joe

Mark Harelik's The Immigrant, now in musical form, adds a chapter to the long story of the long-suffering tribe.



The Immigrant

Northlight Theatre

All tribes have at least one trait in common. More than anything--possibly even more than pissing on other tribes--they love to recount the epic of their founding.

And out of all the tribes, I'd say we Jews love the recounting most. In fact, I'd say we may be the world champions of founding-epic form and practice. What are the five books of Moses but an extended narrative telling how God brought the power of the entire universe to bear--in fact, invented the entire universe--just to produce us? And what is our main religious activity but reading that narrative from beginning to end every single year, forever? And what did we do when the story started to get a little stale but write Fiddler on the Roof? We just love to hear about ourselves. It's what we do.

So of course there's a ready-made audience for The Immigrant. A musical version of Mark Harelik's play of the same name, The Immigrant tells the fact-based tale of how Harelik's grandfather Haskell made the transition from Russian Jewish greenhorn to assimilated American dry goods merchant in the first half of the 20th century.

Haskell arrived in the United States under the auspices of the Galveston Movement, a program run by the Jewish Immigrant Information Bureau from 1907 to 1914. Reasoning that the tsunami of Eastern European Jews hitting New York at the turn of the century would provoke a nativist backlash as well as economic disruption, the JIIB attempted to divert some of the newcomers to the port of Galveston, Texas, where they could be dispatched into the vastness between the Mississippi River and the Rockies. Before collapsing completely, the Galveston Movement distributed 10,000 Jews to places like Fargo and Fort Worth, where--as a very useful article on the Texas State Historical Association Web site diplomatically puts it--most of them "did not recognize . . . the America of their dreams."

Haskell, however, seems to have made himself right at home. Having stumbled onto Hamilton--a town smack in the middle of Texas that numbered about 1,500 souls when he arrived and even now doesn't list a synagogue among its houses of worship--he's portrayed as making a relentless march toward regular-guyness, American style. In short order the black caftan disappears, then the tsitsim and the mother tongue; the black cap gives way first to a broad-brimmed straw hat and then a bare head, just as the hand-pulled cart gives way to a horse-drawn wagon and then a store.

Haskell's wife's progress is a good deal bumpier. Played by Ana Sferruzza as if she'd escaped from Minsk by way of The Dybbuk, Leah is pure haunted hysterics until she finds a beautician and a nice dress.

Both she and Haskell are guided toward their new identities by a bluff local banker, Milton Perry, and his devoutly Christian wife, Ima. Clearly Mark Harelik regards the difficult, deepening relationship between the two ill-matched couples as the moral center of the play--and given the mood of apoc-alyptic fanaticism surrounding this Christmas season, the gentle tolerance expressed here is welcome.

But a good moral is merely good manners in this context. For a Jewish audience, the real point is the founding epic embodied in Haskell and Leah's fruitful transplantation to Texas. We wallow in their use of Yiddish (at intermission I found myself exchanging Ashkenazic credentials with an elderly lady who wanted to know how much I understood). We marvel at the dark cosmic twist by which blood libels and pogroms somehow became agents of providence, saving millions from the Holocaust. We kvell at the Hareliks' success, which is ours, and at the cultural vindication we find in seeing our collective story put on a public stage.

Not least, we take pride in Mark Harelik himself: winner of the Good Jewish Boy Lifetime Achievement Award for undertaking this tribute. In our complex tribal consciousness, he's the actual star, both the story's vessel and its climax.

And the show, incidentally, isn't bad. Harelik is overly fastidious about remaining true to family history--which is, after all, his personal founding epic--so his book is about 30 minutes longer than it has to be, and Steven M. Alper's music is pleasantly nondescript at best. But Randal Myler's direction is swift and assured and stays consistently on the comfortable side of the line between endearment and pandering.

As basically competent as they are, the performances tend to be uneven. Though Sferruzza's early histrionics hint enticingly at the deep trauma of the immigrant experience, no one else seems willing to go there with her, and before long her Leah settles into unshaded complacency. Meanwhile Craig Spidle, compensating for a deadly singing voice, convincingly depicts Milton Perry as a would-be cynic perpetually bewildered by his own decency. It's just the opposite with Hollis Resnik: her great voice is compromised by an uncertain sense of who Ima is. Aaron Serotsky's Haskell, however, is just about perfect--an innocent and a bastard, smart and stupid, charming and frustrating and real.

WHEN: Through 1/9: Tue 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 and 7 PM. Holiday schedule varies; call for information.

WHERE: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

PRICE: $20-$53

INFO: 847-673-6300

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tim Fuller.

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