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Timeless drama ‘The Immigrant’ to open at Stageworks Theatre

Bill DeYoung



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

With refugee flights and immigration issues achieving hot button status in the current news cycle, Mark Harelik’s The Immigrant is as relevant as ever. In 1988, the young playwright set to paper the account of his grandfather’s flight from oppression in Czarist Russia to the “golden streets” of America in 1909.

In truth, it’s the kind of story that would resonate anywhere, any time.

Opening Friday at Stageworks Theatre in Tampa, The Immigrant is a story of cultural identity, assimilation, personal and religious freedom and the timeless human longing for a better life.

Fleeing the rampant violence in his home country, Russian Jew Haskell Harelik arrives in Galveston, Texas – at the time second only to New York as a port of entry – determined to make enough money to bring his wife, Leah, over as well. They wish to start a family.

“In the middle of the play, it talks about how there are men in Russia who travel the country with carts, selling sundries, medicines, pots and pans, that sort of thing,” director Karla Hartley explains. “And that Haskell didn’t want to do that.

“He’d never seen a banana before – he saw them unloading bananas at the port when he arrived, and I think he got excited about bananas. A new country, a new thing.”

And so he became a streetside fruit vendor, in the tiny town of Hamilton.

Upon his arrival Haskell speaks only Yiddish. “Some people in the town welcome him, and some shoot at him,” says Hartley. “It’s a mixed bag of response. He’s the only Jew that some of the people have met or seen. It’s a predominantly Baptist town.”

He makes unlikely friends with neighbors Milton and Ima Perry. “I don’t think they’re particularly special,” Hartley explains, “I think these are normal, average everyday folk who choose to welcome this stranger to their land.”

When The Immigrant premiered, the critic from USA Today called it “a funny new play,” and also compared Haskell’s evocative, folksy descriptions and dialogue to those of an American theater legend. “The scenes,” she said, “evoke the rural era with the firm-handed clarity of a Jewish Horton Foote … they glow.”

Orlando-based actor Sebastian Gonzalez, last seen in the Stageworks production of Anna in the Tropics, plays Haskell. Noa Friedman is Leah, and the Perrys are played by Stageworks perennials Jim Wicker and Rosemary Orlando.

(Both Friedman and Wicker just came off the Jobsite Theater production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.)

“I think The Immigrant asks all the same questions that we’re asking now,” Harley offers. “How do we welcome people into the country?; why do we welcome people into the country?; Should we be doing that?

“It’s a gentle way of talking about this whole issue. It’s a lovely, languid play that sort of asks you to engage in what you’re seeing and relate as best you can.

“Depending on your political persuasion, you either talk about immigrants as poison, or you talk about them as opportunity. So I think it’s a good time to be doing this particular play. I didn’t bargain for the whole Gaza situation, but I think that makes the play more relevant.”

Following an 8 p.m. preview Thursday, The Immigrant runs March 15-31. For information and tickets, click here.




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