At 35, Mark Harelik looks more boyish and mischievous than he did at 27 when, as an earnest, very intense young acting student at Santa Maria's Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, he played the title role in Robert Patrick's "Judas."
Since then Harelik has loosened up a lot, played many roles, some at the Mark Taper Forum ("Wild Oats"), many at Santa Maria and Solvang, at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, San Diego's Old Globe and the Denver Center Theatre Company. The eyes under the short jet-black hair have grown playful, the pursing mouth has learned to smile and he's matured into a superior, easy-going performer who, in 1984, wrote his first play--almost by chance.
That play--"The Immigrant--A Hamilton County Album"--opens next Thursday at the Taper after two seasons at the Denver Center where it originated. It was written in a fast three weeks as a last-minute replacement for a show he and his director, Randall Myler, had developed in 1982, based on the life and music of Hank Williams.
When the music company pulled the rights before a planned 1985 restaging of the show in Denver, artistic director Donovan Marley offered to keep the slot open for any project Harelik and Myler might again dream up. "There's this story I've always wanted to write. . . , " said Harelik.
"The Immigrant" was it.
This intimate, partially imagined history of Haskell Harelik (Mark's grandfather), a Russian immigrant and the first Jew to settle in tiny Hamilton, Tex., in the early 1900s, features the author as his own grandfather. For Harelik, this impersonation and the production's gathering momentum have been a watershed experience.
"I don't want to push this play anyplace," he cautioned, relaxing in an empty dressing room at the Taper during a rehearsal break. "I want it to be invited in. It was invited here. It was invited there (Denver). It was invited to be told in the first place."
The four-character play got mixed reviews in its first Denver outing, but audience response was another story. This rather traditional, touching tale of personal survival struck a nerve. Word of mouth brought people in--enough to warrant rescheduling "The Immigrant" in a larger space for Denver's '85-'86 season.
Then theaters around the country began asking for the rights. Harelik, who'd been anxious to see how the play would fare in other hands, gave it to Chicago's Wisdom Bridge, but found that production "a sticky, maudlin, shallow valentine to something rather vague."
It's a criticism that has been leveled at the play before, though in milder terms. Myler claims the version at the Taper is tougher.
"If we can toughen it some more, I would be even happier," Harelik said. "Words are what people say. How and why lie behind the words. If you assume that characters must follow the path of greatest resistance, what seems to be hearts and flowers in a scene can actually be painful and heroic. The people I'm writing about are mild, and one of the difficult tasks is writing about undramatic, sometimes unimaginative people in a way that reveals who they are--preserving simplicity without manipulating events. I've manipulated plenty, anyway."
He did invent a good deal of his story but, he said, "It doesn't bother me. Garrison Keillor said that a writer should concern himself less with facts and more with trends. What is illuminated on the stage is the life and times of this little segment of the country--and the rhythms of these people."
Harelik was born and grew up in Hamilton, a town of 3,200 people where his grandfather and later his father ran the dry goods store. He shared the same house with his grandparents during their older years (and his own junior high and high school years). Before that they had always been neighbors.
"There is no mall in Hamilton," he said with a wry smile, "nor is there likely to be. Everything there has a human face. My grandparents' home was my home. We had several meals together all through the week and Sundays we were always at their house. I had sort of an idyllic childhood. I loved my parents, but my relationship to my grandparents was . . . angelic."
It took distance, however, to put it in focus. Said Harelik:
"The day I went off to college I stopped being a practicing Jew. There was no decision. I realized the only reason I had gone to shul was to commune with the family. I loved being in the synagogue sitting next to my grandparents. It was a religious experience, but when I went by myself, I knew that what had made it religious was not the ceremony but the presence of these people with their love and their belief in God. It warmed me like a heating element.