Past Digressions: 'The Immigrant' and 'Webb's City'

click to enlarge NEW BEGINNINGS: In The Immigrant, Joanna Sycz, Julia Flood, - Michael O. Smith and Dan Matisa play Russian Jews living in early 20th - century Texa - Samantha Dunscombe
Samantha Dunscombe
NEW BEGINNINGS: In The Immigrant, Joanna Sycz, Julia Flood, Michael O. Smith and Dan Matisa play Russian Jews living in early 20th century Texa

It's about halfway through Act II of The Immigrant at American Stage that we're finally able to enjoy a scene of some psychological — and even historical — complexity. Up till now, Mark Harelik's play has shown us Jewish immigrant Haskell Harelik — a character based on the author's grandfather — as he rises from poverty to middle-class respectability with the help of good-natured banker Milton Perry and his wife, Ima. What we haven't seen is much indication of a larger world outside the Harelik/Perry neighborhood, a world (in the years 1909-39) of ideological turmoil, economic crisis and anti-Semitism. But now it's 1939, and the Hareliks — Haskell and Leah — have invited the Perrys to a Sabbath dinner. After saying, in Hebrew, the blessings that precede the meal — and stumbling on their translation into English — Haskell turns the conversation to the war brewing in Europe. Hitler and Mussolini, he says, are a threat not only to Europeans but also to Americans. No, Milton says, the conflict is strictly a foreign one, and America should stay out of it. Haskell, himself once a refugee, wishes that more of "my people" could find shelter in the States; but Milton insists that it's his right to "keep my yard clean of every damn stray dog in the world."

It's a provocative scene, fraught with still-resonant historical arguments and full of the complicated emotions and subconscious motives that make for powerful drama. It's also one of the few scenes in The Immigrant that goes very far beneath the surface of its characters or admits to a sociopolitical world beyond little Hamilton, Texas, population 1,200. In the absence of such probing, The Immigrant is most often a pleasant, mildly endearing look at a sympathetic Russian Jewish character, his likable wife and the two earnest Christian friends who help them both become Americans.

What it's not — what it never really tries to be — is an investigation of Jewish-Christian relations, religious orthodoxy vs. secularism, American immigration policy, American xenophobia or the psychology of altruism. If you can enjoy a dramatic work that references all these subjects without examining any of them, you'll probably be charmed by The Immigrant, with its tolerant humanism and its claims to documentary factuality. But if you look to the drama for something to think about, for an opportunity to feel deeply along with deeply-drawn characters, you'll most likely be disappointed by this minor exercise in nostalgia.

Fortunately, the acting is usually good enough to hold our attention even when the story doesn't. Best of all is the masterful Michael O. Smith as gruff but amicable Milton Perry, one of the most charitable bankers ever to enter a work of drama. Smith's talents are so prodigious one almost doesn't notice how much of the character — especially his good points — remains unexplained. Satisfying too is Dan Matisa as Haskell Harelik, who begins as a Yiddish-only fruit peddler and becomes, with Milton's help, a successful American dry goods merchant. Julia Flood as Milton's wife, Ima, is delightful in Act One of the play but doesn't convincingly age in Act Two (a more persuasive gray wig wouldn't hurt, either); and Joanna Sycz as Leah Harelik seems more of a well-intentioned caricature of a Russian Jewess than the thing itself. I also had trouble with Sycz's accent, or rather, with both of her accents. The first one seemed old-world Jewish; the second I couldn't easily identify.

A further problem with the production is Jeffrey W. Dean's massive set. Dean is one of the area's very best set designers, so I'm surprised that instead of a banker's back porch (as indicated by the script) he's constructed a monumental wooden façade resembling the side of a barn. This wooden wall is so imposing that it overwhelms the few props that are brought in to suggest scene changes. Scene after scene appears to take place in the strangely abstract presence of the monolith. Amy J. Cianci's costumes are just right, though: Especially impressive is the way she suggests the improvements in Haskell's economic status by the evolution of his clothing. Gil Lazier's direction is top-notch, and the complicated interweaving of live scenes with projected slides from the Harelik scrapbook is always handled with professional facility. But 40 old snapshots don't add up to a life, and neither do two acts of affectionate anecdotes. If you're looking for a serious play about the Jewish experience in America, or about immigrants in general, don't look to The Immigrant — it leaves far too much out to be satisfying on either score. But if your idea of a good time is sitting at the kitchen table listening to Grandpa as he holds forth on the least sensitive details of his youth — well, this is right up your alley. This is the tale you've been waiting for.

Just don't ask questions.

Wonderful Webb's. If you didn't see Webb's City: The Musical last year, do yourself a favor and see it now, before it bounces away from St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater. Playwright Bill Leavengood and composer/lyricist Lee Ahlin have made drug store entrepreneur Doc Webb's life into a genuinely successful crowd-pleaser, with powerful acting, delightful singing, and even some rousing group tap dancing.

Steve Wilkerson as Doc Webb is nearly perfect: good-humored, iconoclastic, egotistical but easily likable. And the luminous Angela Bond as wife Aretta is just sassy and self-confident enough to keep him in line. Other standouts include Steven Clark Pachosa as cheerful brother Bunie and Jeff Norton as liberal newspaperman Nelson Poynter. Playwright Leavengood shows a remarkable ability to find the emotional center at each stage of Webb's busy life, and Ahlin has a gift for melody that makes most of his songs worth hearing again. OK, the play is a half-hour too long at three hours. But this is a special show, a unique affirmation of local history that also happens to be first-class theater. There's a lot of talent on the stage of the Mahaffey this week, singing and dancing in front of Lino Toyos' colorful sets. Don't miss this chance to see Webb's City rise again. Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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