Published March 16, 2007
Theatrical Outfit’s latest production, “The Immigrant,” which is being presented March 15-April 8, is a timely play about a young Jewish couple fleeing Russia in the early 1900s who land in a tiny community of Hamilton, Texas, strangers in a new land. But Southern Baptists Milton and Irma Perry set aside their own fears and misgivings to welcome the couple into their home and make a way for them to live in a hostile community.
Executive artistic director Tom Key believes that for Catholics the drama, written by actor/playwright Mark Harelik in 1988, calls for believers to welcome the strangers among them today.
“This play reminds me of Christ’s call to Christians to welcome, and even embrace, ‘the stranger.’ In Matthew, Jesus tells us, ‘If you did not welcome one of them, you didn’t welcome me.’ The Baptist couple in ‘The Immigrant’ makes it their business to welcome the immigrants, yes, out of duty, but also from a place of love and compassion,” said Key. It “is a beautifully crafted play about receiving a stranger. In post 9/11 America, I believe this is a story of particular importance, especially when it is told with such grace, authenticity and humor. The play’s characters work to find what, as Jews and Baptists, unites them instead of divides them.”
The catalyst for the plot stems from the occurrence of the “Galveston Movement” from 1907-1914. Two million Jews had fled the pogroms and increasingly restrictive laws of imperial Russia. Jewish leaders were concerned that the U.S. government would close its doors to new Jewish immigrants due to the crowds coming into the Eastern cities, so to divert Jews fleeing Russia and Eastern Europe, ten thousand Jewish immigrants passed through Galveston, Texas.
The character Haskell Harelik, based on the playwright’s grandfather, arrived in Hamilton, where he sold bananas from a wheelbarrow with the few English words he’d picked up. He meets Irma Perry who is a nurturing, caring woman but finds him odd and frightening, She asks herself if she is doing the right thing, by small-town society norms, but follows her heart in reaching out to him. Her husband is gruff, all business and closed down emotionally. His initially grudging relationship with Haskell begins to break his shell a bit.
Key believes the play is particularly relevant today as the nation debates how to address the need for immigration reform, and that in order for any society to alleviate suffering, minister justice and establish peace, the citizens of that society first have to see the suffering, comprehend the injustice and understand both sides of the conflict. And the only way a society can attain that sort of consciousness, which evokes responsible and moral action, he believes, is through story.
“When we hear statistics or debate or argument, it affects us on an intellectual level, but when we hear a story about the consequences of our actions on a human level, I believe it affects us on the level of our souls, our moral will and judgment,” he said. “This particular story is a microcosm of the current debate regarding immigration because it gives it a human face.”
Key admires the stand taken by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles in calling Catholics during Lent to fasting, prayer and reflection on the need for humane immigration reform laws. Cardinal Mahony also called Catholics to defy the HR 4437 enforcement-only bill in Congress if it is passed, as it would make it a felony to aid or shield the undocumented.
“If I were a cardinal, I hope that I would have the courage to do what Cardinal Mahony has done. As a theater artist who is a Catholic, what I can do is to produce a story, like Mark Harelik’s ‘The Immigrant,’ in the hope that it will not just add to the debate on immigration, but that it will awaken the heart of the audience to the necessity of compassion—Christ’s compassion.”
All performances will be at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, located at 84 Luckie St. in downtown Atlanta. Evening shows are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. To purchase tickets call (678) 528-1500, or buy in person at the box office or online at www.theatricaloutfit.org.