by Lynn on November 15, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Mark Harelik
Lyrics by Sarah Knapp
Music by Steven M. Alper
Directed by Robert McQueen
Set and Costumes by Brandon Kleiman
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by William Fallon
Musical director, Shelley Hanson
Cast: Kathryn Akin
Sean Arbuckle
Steven Gallagher
Tracy Michailidis

A noble, well intentioned musical homage by Mark Harelik to celebrate his grandfather’s story. A sharper focus and some judicious editing are in order.

The Story. The story is about Haskell Harelik (originally pronounced Gorehlik). He fled the pogroms of Russia in about 1909 and came to Hamilton, Texas. He was the only Jew in the small rural town. He left behind his young wife, Leah until he could afford to bring her to America. In the meantime he had a fruit cart. He sold bananas door to door.

When he arrived at the door of Milton and Ima his luck changed. Ima took pity on this bearded man who could not speak English. He only spoke Yiddish. Somehow they communicated. He wanted to wash up because he was ‘shmootzic’, (dirty). They rented him a room in their home. They got their neighbours to buy his bananas. Milton gave him business advice. Milton ran the local bank.

Haskell worked hard and prospered. Five years after arriving he brought his wife Leah from Russia to Hamilton, Texas to live with him. At first she was lonely and missed Jewish people. Eventually she acclimatized. Three children were born to Haskell and Leah, one was named after Milton. Haskell and Leah remained friends of Milton and Ima, except for one falling out between the two men.

Writer Mark Harelik, the writer of The Immigrant, is commemorating his grandfather, Haskell in the work.

The Production. Brandon Kleiman has designed a simple, efficient set—a door frame up centre suggests Milton and Ima’s house; an elevated section stage right indicates Haskell’s room in that house; later a shelving unit stage left suggests Haskell’s store. No more is needed.

The score by Steven M. Alper will not have you whistling any of the songs as you leave the theatre. Sarah Knapp’s lyrics are serviceable, although in an effort to be poetic in Haskell’s first song he sings that the stars are so bright that they light his way. My eyebrows crinkle. While Kimberly Purtell’s twinkly lights dot the sky, I know that it’s not the stars that light the way but the moon, which is absent. Later Leah sings a reprise of the song. I sigh still sure the stars can’t light their way.

Mark Harelik does not beat the audience over the head with his grandfather’s travails but we get the picture of how difficult his life was. He escaped the pogroms of Russia for a better life in America. He didn’t know the language but was resourceful and eager to learn. At times in that small town people were cruel and attacked him because he was different and damaged the sign for his fruit cart. He bore it with quiet stoicism. Milton and Ima were mortified and wanted Haskell to tell the police. He didn’t want trouble so he just decided not to go again to the neighbourhood where he was attacked. Later Haskell has to contend with Leah’s intense unhappiness in her new home and country. She misses mixing with Jews. He also has his own personal conflicts of fitting in, choosing not to be an orthodox Jew; difficulties with one of his sons; the worry over the rise of Hitler; and ultimately a fight with his friend Milton that caused a rift in their friendship.

The conflicts are not illuminated in neon. Rather they are those of a quiet living man who does not want to make trouble. We can all understand that. Director Robert McQueen establishes the relationships nicely—clear, precise. The acting and singing are uniformly fine. As Haskell, Sean Arbuckle captures his eagerness, tenacity and quiet determination. There is a lot of dignity in this lovely performance. Steven Gallagher is gregarious and initially suspicious as Milton the careful banker. He is aggressive in his opinions and irritated when he doesn’t think he is getting due respect. As Ima, Kathryn Akin gives Haskell and Leah her kindness and consideration. She has never seen a Jew before so it’s a learning curve that she masters quickly. As Leah, Tracy Michailidis is feisty, impatient, and finally accommodating.

There are a few concerns. At two hours and 40 minutes it’s two long. Haskell has rented his room from Ima and Milton for five years before he announces that he has brought his wife from Russia. Milton is furious, saying that Haskell lied to them when he was asked if there was anyone else who would be moving in to that one room. Haskell told the truth. There was no one then. He didn’t tell them about his wife in Russia. Why should he? She wasn’t there yet and it took a good five years for Haskell to earn enough to bring her over. Milton’s fury is an unsupported complication in the story.

Mark Harelik has added a tangential story of Ima’s church-going devotion and Milton’s refusal to go to church. As a Baptist he has not been baptised and he refuses to do it. Ima feels that as a result Milton will not go to heaven with her when the time comes, but the other place. Ima sings a few songs about her love of Jesus and her despair at the end that she will not see Milton in heaven. This story line and the unnecessary songs don’t forward the story and add unnecessary baggage to the play and should be cut, to save time. It’s called The Immigrant. That’s what the show is about. The rest is filler.

Comment. I’m sure many people will identify with Haskell’s story. That it’s an honourable endeavour and a well done production is not faint praise. I just wish that The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company did more challenging fare for its audiences. There certainly are many plays out there that are challenging in their story-telling. Some even take place in Toronto. It’s troubling that the company is not attracting a young audience. It’s troubling that on a Sunday afternoon the theatre was a bit under half full. Does the Jewish community not care about this company and their stories? One wonders.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company presents:

Opened: Oct. 31, 2015.
Closes: Nov. 22, 2015.
Cast: 4; 2 men, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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