Mark Harelik's "The Immigrant--A Hamilton County Album" at the Mark Taper Forum concerns a young Jewish fruit peddler (played by Harelik) who has come to Texas from Russia in 1909 with hardly a penny to his name.
Pushing his pushcart in the hot sun, he asks a little bird of a woman (Ann Guilbert) for a drink of water. Her husband is the town's crusty but soft-hearted banker (Guy Raymond.) He sees a future for this likely young man and helps set him up in a little store. He is not too pleased when the peddler reveals that he's also got a wife, just over from Russia (Terri Hanauer, clutching two candlesticks.) But his own wife calms him down.
Down the years, the couples stay friends. Each time the storekeeper's wife has a baby--she has three fine sons--the banker's wife is there to help. When the banker dies, his widow comes to work in the store (now a big store.) To the end of their lives, it's a beautiful relationship, proving that good people bond with each other, no matter what their race, creed or place of national origin.
Wednesday night's Taper audience adored "The Immigrant." One subscriber said to artistic director Gordon Davidson: "You've made up for "Green Card!" (Joanne Akailitis' far more critical play about immigration, which had brought some equally critical letters to the theater.) Well, it takes all kinds. This reviewer found Harelik's play so "affirmative" that it hardly existed as drama.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 30, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Part 5 Page 6 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Kevin Rupnik was the set designer for the Mark Taper Forum's "The Immigrant--A Hamilton County Album," not Kevin Ruprecht, as reported in Friday's review.
Its scenes, he tells us in a program note, are from the lives of his grandparents, but could equally well be from the lives of ours. It reminds us that "simple hearts have much to teach us." That's taking a lot for granted. My grandparents were much more interesting and cross-grained than this, and so, I'll bet, were Harelik's. But instead of imagining them, he has idealized them.
"The life described is not a dream," he writes. "It is real." It doesn't feel real. It feels like TV, with everyone playing a cultural stereotype--playing it superbly; there's no complaint about the acting in this show--and being quaint, comic or lyrical as needed. It's the Waltons come to the Taper.
The birth montage is characteristically cute. Ow, ow! the young wife cries from offstage. Her husband paces around in a dither. Land's sakes, clucks the banker's wife to her husband, can't you take him off somewhere and get him out of our way?
So the two men repair to the front porch to inspect the step that--wouldn't you know?--the storekeeper still hasn't fixed since his wife's last pregnancy. (The banker's surprise to see this makes one wonder how often the couples actually do get together.)
Waaa! And the husband comes out with another bundle of joy, which he lays on the ground, according to Jewish tradition, as the banker's wife tries to get there first with a blanket. Then a picture of the baby appears on the backdrop. First Mordecai, then Moishe, then Milton--each cuter than the last. Darling, says the audience.
"Darling" says it for the play in general. But it does have a scene that tells what "The Immigrants" could have been if it weren't so committed to being positive. It's 1935 and the two couples are sharing a Sabbath dinner (for the first time, it seems: again, one wonders how intimate they really are.)
The mood is warm, and there's a really charming bit of business where Guilbert as the banker's wife, a Baptist teetotaler, must choose between taking a sip of wine or possibly embarrassing her hosts. (This is no problem for the husband, whom Raymond suggests may occasionally lift a few with boys down at Rotary.)
Little by little the conversation turns to Hitler and the war in Europe. That suggests the question of what to do about the Jewish refugees. Harelik, having been a refugee from the Cossacks, says that America should take them in. Raymond sympathizes with them, but you can't take in just anybody.
I was just anybody, Harelik reminds him, getting just a little hot under the collar. Raymond stiffens, beginning to feel attacked--ungratefully, so, in his opinion, after all he has done for this young man. Harelik acidly wonders how many years it will be before he's allowed to forget all that. And the fight is on.
Here, and only here, "The Immigrant" gets under the skin of its people and puts them into a revealing opposition. Elsewhere we hear hints of problems--particularly the problem of how to maintain one's Jewishness in a town where there aren't any other Jews--but nothing's so dire that a heart-to-heart talk in the kitchen won't resolve it.
We know that this isn't life in the 1980s. Why do we take comfort in imagining that people in the 1910s were so much simpler than we are?