When playwright Mark Harelik wrote The Immigrant in 1985 to tell his grandfather’s life story, he certainly wasn’t thinking about the political concerns of 2018. Yet Austin Playhouse’s new staging of the play, 28 years after the theater company first produced it, proves that some plays only become more resonant as they age.
The Immigrant is the true-life tale of Harelik’s grandfather, Haskell Harelik, a Jewish immigrant who fled from Russian pogroms to the small town of Hamilton, Texas, where he built a successful business and life.
Austin Playhouse’s producing artistic director, Don Toner, directed the show both three decades ago as well as today. He sat down with us to talk about the ways in which the play has evolved for him over the years.
How has your approach to The Immigrant changed since Austin Playhouse first staged it 28 years ago?
When I first read the play, I was new to Texas and happy to find a beautifully written play set in a small Texas community. Mark Harelik had written an intimate story about his grandparents' immigration to the United States and their many contributions to their community and country. I approached it then as a very personal story about a Texas family. This time around I was more mindful of the universality of this story.
The show definitely seems to have implications and resonances for our contemporary political moment. Was this part of the motivation for re-mounting the play this season?
We knew the story was worth retelling, but yes, we chose it for the season principally because of the current anti-immigrant policies of our administration. I thought it would be a good time for a reminder that most American families started with immigration to this country.
What kind of research went into making the Yiddish and Hebrew, as well as the recreations of Jewish ceremonies and traditions, sound and look authentic?
For our production 28 years ago, we were fortunate to have a Yiddish and Hebrew consultant named Seth Wolitz help Tom Parker and Babs George (who played Haskell and Leah Harelik) with the Yiddish ceremonies and songs. Tom and Babs, who are Acting Company members at Austin Playhouse, passed along what they learned to Joseph Garlock and Estrella Saldaña, who play Haskell and Leah in our current production.
What do you think the show has to say about the immigrant experience, both historically and today?
This kind of story has been played out for centuries as part of the life of this country, and hopefully it will be reenacted for centuries to come.
The Immigrant runs through January 28 at Austin Playhouse, Thu-Sat at 8:30pm, Sun at 5pm. $16-$34.