There are weaknesses to the musical version of Mark Harelik's play The Immigrant. The dialogue is sometimes flat-footed. The plot holds few surprises, and there's no real arc to the action. The songs are uninspired, and one of the four castmembers has a voice more powerful than pleasant. As a result, some of the numbers seem to go on forever -- though the purely instrumental music works well, adding feeling and dimension. But none of this matters. There's something so beguiling about this production, so luminous and heartfelt, that you leave the theater feeling grateful and touched.
The Immigrant tells the true story of Harelik's grandfather, Haskell, who, having fled the 1909 pogroms in Russia, found himself in a tiny Texas town called Hamilton, selling bananas. There he was taken in by a Baptist couple, Milton and Ima Perry. In the play, Haskell gets his feet under him, brings over his wife, Leah, and fathers three children. The couple's relationship with the Perrys shifts and changes. That's all there is to it.
So why is the play entrancing? To begin with, the plight of the immigrant is evocative, almost archetypal. As Haskell struggles to communicate with Milton and Ima on their first meeting, you can sense how strange he is to them: his language, his clothes, his appearance, his very being. The forces that shaped Haskell, including the surges of unpredictable violence against him and his people, simply don't exist in the Perrys' reality. You understand, too, how desperate Haskell is to make this connection on which his survival depends. He pleads. He mimics their raised voices (like many people, they seem to think their words will be more comprehensible if spoken very loudly). He jokes. He attempts a kind of friendly insolence. And you see the Western skies as they must look to him: vast and frighteningly without interruption or end. "Ich bin ein stranger here," he keeps repeating, as if they couldn't tell.
Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company
Through February 23, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org
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Haskel begins to adjust, but the theme of culture shock recurs in spades when his wife, Leah, arrives. She's lonely, lost and desperately missing her mother. And she's furious at the extent to which her husband has assimilated. It's Ima -- with her maternal kindness and frank curiosity -- who rescues Leah. Peeling and chopping vegetables together, the two women discover shared customs and superstitions: When the salt spills, both toss a pinch over their left shoulders, simultaneously realize what they've done and roar with laughter. This is when The Immigrant's second theme comes to the fore. It has to do with the power of small kindnesses and how people of different backgrounds can find a way to come together.
As directed by Randal Mylar, this is a beautiful and meticulous production. Usually, when you find yourself paying attention to sets, lighting and costumes in the theater it's because your attention has drifted from more important elements. Not so here. The lighting, by Don Darnutzer, is not only lovely, but a key element of the production. It shines a welcoming amber light on Leah's Sabbath table. It captures the changing transparency of the Western sky, the colors and flowing movement of clouds. Against this background are the clean and balanced contours of Ralph Funicello's set, realized in exquisite detail, down to the waving dry grasses at the front of the stage. Even the costumes add meaning. At the beginning, Ima's cream-beige dress links her to her surroundings, while Haskell's black coat and the hat he cannot remove mark him as an alien.
The acting is also first-rate. Truthfully, I could have done without Adam Heller's singing as Haskell, but his transformation from a boy so desperate and out of his element that he almost seems buffoonish into a steady, kindly and humorous paterfamilias is impeccable. Walter Charles gives Milton Perry exactly the right mix of gravitas, irascibility and kindness. Cass Morgan's Ima is, for the most part, warm and comforting as fresh cream, though she' capable of shrillness and sudden spurts of infectious laughter. Both Charles and Morgan have fine voices, though I'd wish them better songs. In her early appearances as Leah, Jacqueline Antaramian manages to express by turns an irritating kvetchiness and the timeless, yearning homesickness of all displaced people. Antaramian has a lovely voice, and she brings a grace to the role that seems both physical and spiritual.
I don't know how much the strength of The Immigrant comes from the acting and production values at the Denver Center, and how much from the piece itself. I can't tell if this musical would work in a community or dinner theater. But I suspect it might. Because, at the core, what gives The Immigrant life is Harelik's love for his family, his ability to divine the human meaning behind simple interactions and -- without artifice or sentimentality -- give it words.