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THEATER REVIEW : 'The Immigrant' Simple but Dramatic : PCPA Theaterfest offers a riveting production of the biographical story of a Russian Jew's struggle in a new land.

August 26, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What is most immediately striking about PCPA Theaterfest's "The Immigrant" is its deceptive simplicity.

This biographical play traces the history of actor Mark Harelik's grandfather, a Russian Jew who came to America in 1906 to escape persecution and wound up an unlikely lifelong resident in a small Texas town.

Very little in Haskell Harelik's life seems the stuff of high drama. His legacy was modest--he built a successful grocery business, fathered three sons and gained the eventual acceptance and respect of his Christian neighbors. Even the inevitable prejudice he encountered along the way took the form of petty harassment and thoughtless remarks, not life-threatening melodramatics.

But the big surprise here is just how riveting this stage biography developed by Mark Harelik and Randal Myler turns out to be.

With a delicacy that keeps "The Immigrant" free of heavy-handedness, Director Frederic Barbour guides his talented cast through a flawlessly executed production.

The saga of the Harelik family's assimilation into their strange, wonderful and terrifying new homeland is more than just "Roots" with blintzes. In the intimacy of live performance, it becomes a window into the history of this country and the immigrant experience shared, somewhere along the line, by our own ancestors.

What was it like for them, pulling up stakes and risking everything on a new beginning? We feel the giddy uncertainty of that great adventure in a visceral way thanks to Gregg Coffin's masterful portrayal of Haskell Harelik.

When we first meet Haskell peddling fruit from a pushcart, "Bananas a penny apiece" is practically his entire English vocabulary. Seeking water at the doorstep of prosperous banker Milton Perry (Jonathan Gillard Daly), Haskell's warm, generous soul pierces the language barrier, prompting Milton's wife Ina (Elise Ogden) to offer lodging to the shy foreigner.

From the sanctuary of his little room, Haskell pours out his soul in letters to Leah (Lisa Paulsen), the wife he left behind in Russia. With the unmistakable poignancy of real life, his thoughts revolve around wry commentary on the odd ways and daily occurrences of his new country, and his grand hope of saving enough money to one day bring her to him.

"Sometimes I'm lonely," he writes, "but other times--most times--I feel free."

Haskell's dreams and hard work pay off as the aloof Milton eventually comes to share his wife's affection for their lodger and finances him in a profitable partnership.

Watching Coffin portray Haskell's growing mastery of the language and ways of Hamilton, Tex., is both delightful and profoundly moving.

The measure of his growth is evident when Leah at last arrives, terrified of this land, and urges him to move someplace where they can be with other Jews.

"How many years have the Jews been wandering?" he replies. "Who says they can't wander to Texas and rest for a while?"

Who indeed?

The story of Haskell Harelik is a simple but eloquent affirmation of America's promised opportunity to immigrants of all kinds--though in an era that may sadly be behind us.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"The Immigrant." Performed through Sept. 4 at the Festival Theatre in Solvang, Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m., and at the Allan Hancock College Marian Theatre in Santa Maria, Sept. 9-26, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $11-$17. For reservations or further information, call (800) 549-PCPA.

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