Into the unknown

This country’s history is a saga of immigrants. Most American families treasure personal epics of an ancestor or ancestors making that risky leap — one unimaginable to their descendants just a few generations later.

Playwright Mark Harelik, however, has imagined his grandfather’s journey, and in so doing, he’s created a unique and powerful story: The Immigrant, opening this week at Asheville Community Theatre.

One of our more common stereotypes is that of the Russian Jew, arriving penniless and alone at Ellis Island, hustled through an incomprehensible system and thrust into the bustle of New York City, where he discovers a robust Eastern European Jewish community not remarkably different from the one he left behind.

Harelik’s grandfather/protagonist took a different boat, however — and therein lies the tale. Landing in Galveston, Texas, Haskell Garelik made his way to Hamilton, Texas, where he enjoyed the distinction of being the first Jew the local cowboys had ever encountered. Sheltered by a local banker and his devoted Baptist wife, Haskell rises from pushcart banana-seller to respected businessman — eventually transporting his young bride from her old-country shtetel to a strange new home across the ocean, where they embark on the business of raising a typical American family.

Desperation, a leap, hard work, assimilation, and finally, prosperity: We tend to forget, in these fat and easy times, this wondrous journey, and what it meant (and still means) to the world’s “huddled masses.”

The Immigrant is an interesting choice for ACT. The play is fairly new to the little-theater repertoire, and it’s not often done. Judging by a recent rehearsal, it promises to be a well-told and heart-warming story, with a few comic moments — and many poignant ones. The drama ends — as it did in real life — with decline and death: You probably won’t leave the theater humming the Yiddish folk songs peppering the plot. A small cast requires the four actors to be strong enough to carry the work’s emotional weight (not to mention aging believably over the tale’s 80-year span). Fortunately, director Ralph Redpath has assembled such a crew.

Jerime Estill — making his third foray onto the ACT boards — stars as Haskell the immigrant. Local audiences may also remember Estill from such recent productions as Asheville on Broadway’s The Normal Heart, and the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre’s Blessed Assurance — or perhaps as a baker and pastry chef at the Black Mountain Bakery. Haskell’s wife, Leah, is played by Jennifer Beck, another ACT vet whose past roles there have included Ann in All My Sons and Miep in The Diary of Anne Frank. (By day, Beck works as an audiologist at Thoms Rehabilitation Hospital).

On the Texas side of the fence, local theater maven David Hopes brings his sure hand to the role of Milton Perry, the agnostic banker who befriends the immigrant. Hopes — a literature professor at UNCA — is also co-founder of the Black Swan Theater Company, and an author and playwright of national note. He shared the stage with Estill in The Normal Heart, and commanded it solo as storied Louisiana governor Huey Long in Consider the Following’s one-man show, Kingfish. Carla Pridgen will play Perry’s big-hearted Baptist wife, Ima — her first on-stage appearance in an ACT production, though the actress honed her chops as a behind-the-scenes worker in the 1999 ACT productions Dames at Sea and Blithe Spirit. Before taking a five-year break, she could be seen (on and off the stage) in community theaters around South Carolina; Pridgen, a former Presbyterian minister, is also a poet and counselor.

Of note to longtime ACT fans will be the return of Ralph Redpath to the director’ s chair. Redpath was the theater’s artistic director for 11 years before leaving last year for the more stable environs of Prudential Insurance, where he is now a financial planner. The Immigrant had long been on Redpath’s wish list, so he was particularly excited to be invited back to direct it. Addressing the way the play diverges from the typical, Neil Simon-esque immigrant play, Redpath points out: “Those plays are about family. In this play, the immigrant has no one. A couple of Southerners — an agnostic and a Baptist — are his only support until his wife comes. To fit in, he sacrifices some of his identity. There is a loss of tradition he undergoes in order to survive. We have this melting-pot stereotype about everyone sort of blending in — becoming ‘American’ — but, in reality, it’s much more complicated than that.”

Among the play’s extratheatrical benefits may be the way it stimulates audience members to look at their own family history. Pridgen tells of reading parts of the play to her mother, including a scene in which the two female characters discuss a shared taboo about mixing milk and fish. “It reminded my mom of her distant past, something she had forgotten,” Pridgen relates.

Estill — a native Nebraskan and fourth-generation American of Spanish, German, Czech and Irish descent — has also found himself immersed in the past, of late: “I had never seen a picture of my old family,” he reveals, “until my grandmother made an album of her parents’ photos as a Christmas present for the children. Since I’ve moved to Asheville, I’ve seen my family name in Estill, S.C., and in the graveyard at the Unitarian church in Charleston, where there are four Estills. I’d never encountered it anywhere before. So much of America has grown from immigrants; this play might give people a starting place to look into their own backgrounds.”

Mark Harelik’s The Immigrant shows Fridays, February 18 and 25, and Saturdays, Feb. 19 and 26, beginning at 8 p.m. A 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinee will run on Sunday, Feb. 20 and Sunday, Feb. 27. Tickets run $15 general admission for evening shows, $13 for matinees. Student/children’s tickets are $9 for all shows. Call 254-1320 or 253-4931 for reservations. The Asheville Community Theater is located at 35 E. Walnut St., in downtown Asheville.

In conjunction with the play, the Center for Cultural Diversity will feature a display in the ACT lobby celebrating Asheville’s immigration history. The theater is also offering two weekday morning performances for schoolchildren. Teachers interested in having their classes attend the matinees should call 252-4793.

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