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Stageworks cast prepares to bid farewell to ‘The Immigrant’

Bill DeYoung

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"The Immigrant," from left: Sebastian Gonzalez, Noa Friedman, Rosemary Orlando and Jim Wicker. Image: Stage Photography of Tampa.

Tampa Bay’s professional play companies are firing on all cylinders this season, with one exceptional show after another. And the season’s barely halfway over.

At Tampa’s Stageworks Theatre, a production of Mark Harelik’s The Immigrant, based on the story of his own grandfather’s journey from pre-Soviet Russia to rural Texas, ends its three-week run Sunday. There are four performances left on the calendar.

Sebastian Gonzalez plays fruit peddler Haskell Harelik, who arrives virtually penniless, but determined to work hard and succeed. At first, he speaks only Yiddish.

“We start off really light, with this character who’s really cute, the whole language thing,” Gonzalez says. “But as we get to know him, he sort of gets fleshed out as a human being.”

His evolution is depicted in fits and starts, not all of them easy to watch. “By the end of it, I’m worn out,” says the actor. “It takes a lot to get there.”

The audience goes on Haskell’s bumpy journey with him, via Milton and Ima Perry, the Christian couple who befriend him. They’re played by Jim Wicker and Rosemary Orlando. “Milton starts out a little bit jaded, and skeptical about getting involved in other people’s lives,” explains Wicker. “Which really becomes a problem later on. But Haskell totally wins him over. He starts looking on Haskell as a son.”

The cast, and director Karla Hartley, are adamant that the issues The Immigrant touches on are evergreens.

“We are all really committed to what we’re doing, and we’re all committed to each other,” says Wicker. “I think that in addition to the fact that it’s a good play well performed, it’s so timely. The whole isolationist, nativist movement in this country is something that’s reflected in the latter part of this play, just before the start of World War I.

“We feel like we’re making a statement about the importance, and the benefit, of having immigrants in this country.”

In time, Haskell learns to speak English. The arrival, mid-play, of his wife Leah – he had to save enough money to buy her a steerage ticket from Russia – sets much of the dialogue back to Yiddish.

Says Gonzalez: “I actually took German in high school, which is a completely different language – however, some of the pronunciations, some of the vocal placement, I did kind of already have that in my back pocket. So it was a matter of  finding the vowels, I think.

“And making sure it’s not a caricature. Because these words mean something; you don’t want to be disrespectful to the language.”

Wicker, left, Orlando, Friedman and Gonzalez. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Noa Friedman (Leah) explains that Harelik’s script pairs the Yiddish passages – including prayers – with their English translations. That way, actors can not only learn the lines phonetically, they can learn and understand what they mean.

Which, particularly with The Immigrant, makes a world of difference.

“I love this script,” Friedman says. “I think it is so well-written. It tells a full story. Each one of the characters go on such a journey that makes them feel real, and relatable in a way.

“And I think that’s why the story is so touching – they’re watching these real people and their real experiences, their real struggles.”

Ima Perry is the glue that holds everyone together when emotions spin them in different directions. “She’s a giver,” Orlando says. “She takes care of Milton, she takes care of Haskell. She wants everybody to love one another. And I think that’s part of her spirit.”

Approaching their final weekend walking in these characters’ skins, the cast members are pensive.

“Sebastian and I were talking,” Wicker says, “and he said ‘This is going to be a hard one to let go.’ And I feel that way too. It’s an emotionally draining play, but in a good way.”

Gonzalez will indeed soon bid farewell to Haskell Harelik – but the character and the story have both made lasting impressions.

“Doing this reminded me why I wanted to get into theater,” he says. “ And I know that sounds cheesy, but I really do mean it. I live in Orlando, so I make the drive. And I wouldn’t have made the drive if I didn’t feel like I wanted to tell the story, and work with these particular people. We all wanted to do this.”

Find tickets at the Stageworks website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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