Although a play at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick is set in the early 20th-century, its story of a Russian Jew’s flight from persecution and struggle to find acceptance in America has modern resonance.
“The Immigrant,” which runs March 12-April 7, was written by Mark Harelik based on the true story of his grandfather, Haskell Harelik, who fled czarist Russia and ended up the lone Jew in the small town of Hamilton, Texas. The play, with its four-person cast, has been performed throughout the country for a number of years.
“It’s a really beautiful personal story about a guy who leaves a pogrom and personal trauma and tries to establish a new life for himself in a land he knows nothing about,” said Benjamin Pelteson, who plays the title role of Haskell Harelik. “It resonates for me with a lot of things happening today with people who come to this country for their own personal safety.”
Jim Jack, the show’s director and the theater’s director of education and outreach, called “The Immigrant” “a great story for these polarizing times.”
He noted the play’s theme of seeking safe haven in the United States and adapting to a new country and language is “exceptionally timely,” and should resonate with audiences.
“The questions it raises are ones we continue to wrestle with today,” said Jack. “What are the values of this country, and who do they belong to? What role do immigrants have in creating and shaping the fabric of this country? What role does compassion play in in the way we interact with people, and how do we allow immigrants access to the American dream?”
The original Harelik sailed from Eastern Europe to Galveston, Texas, the western port of U.S. entry. He moved to Hamilton, southwest of Dallas, and took up selling bananas from a wheelbarrow.
When he was down on his luck, a local couple, Milton and Ima Perry, aided him. Milton, a banker, loaned Harelik money to buy a horse, which he used to pull a pushcart of vegetables and fruit around town.
The peddler eventually brought over his wife — Matleh, known as Leah — from Russia, and Milton soon helped set him up in a store, which became Haskell Harelik Dry Goods Company, and later Haskell Harelik’s Department Store.
“It was a risky thing to do,” said Jack about Milton’s generosity. “Anti-Semitism was not rampant, but it certainly existed, so [Milton] put his reputation on the line for Haskell. … It looks at the difficult work of assimilation and is a funny, moving portrait of relationships between people radically different from each other and how compassion transforms them.”
Haskell and Leah had three sons, the youngest of whom was the playwright’s father, Milton — named in honor of Milton Perry — who took over the store from his father.
Jack said he immediately connected to the story since his own family is from east Texas and his wife’s family emigrated from Russia in the last century and moved from the Lower East Side to Dallas.
“In our bedroom we have two quilts, one made by [Jack’s wife’s] great-grandmother that has as its pattern stars of David, and another quilt made by my great-grandmother, who stitched the names of the children into the blanket,” he said. “They lay side by side.”
“The Immigrant” also resonates with Pelteson, whose paternal grandfather narrowly escaped Nazi Germany on the last boat allowed to leave. On his mother’s side, the family escaped the anti-Semitism in Russia and Poland, sharing many of Pelteson’s character’s experiences.
Toward the end of the play, there is a debate about how many Jews should be let into Texas.
“When you think about it, it is the same debate being litigated now about how many people to let in, how many people can we accommodate,” Pelteson said. “The play makes a good case for welcoming people without being preachy or didactic.”
Pelteson has appeared in numerous theatrical and Shakespearean productions around the country, and been featured in television shows including “Law & Order,” “Homeland,” and “The Americans.”
The three other cast members — Gretchen Hall of South Orange, Lauriel Friedman, and R. Ward Duffy — have extensive New York and regional theater experience.