Recently, a friend tried to explain to her 8-year-old son that he is really half Christian English and half Jewish Lithuanian.
"But Mom," the boy protested, "I'm American!"
"In America," she said, "everybody comes from someplace else."
That's the gentle reminder within "The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album," a charming American fable at Arena's Kreeger Theater. It's the (slightly idealized) true story of playwright-actor Mark Harelik's grandfather Haskell, a Russian Jew who arrived in tiny Hamilton, Texas, in 1909 and gradually parlayed a wheelbarrow full of bananas into a small business and begot a generation of Texans. Haskell Harelik is celebrating his 100th birthday this year.
Haskell's tale is at once everyday and extraordinary, and Harelik paints his grandfather's odyssey from balalaikas to banjos in broad and simple strokes. Refusing to settle in the ghettos of New York, Haskell opts for the more open but more homogeneous Southwest, where he quickly learns he can't make it alone. Luckily the itinerant banana peddler arrives at a farmhouse looking for wasser and an apprehensive but good-hearted Baptist couple, Ima and Milton Perry, agree to take him in -- no small wonder in a place where folks have forgotten their immigrant heritage and where a Jew seems at least as exotic and threatening as a Russian.
On this relatively benevolent soil, Haskell works hard and adjusts rapidly, almost too readily, it seems. When his wife Leah arrives from Russia, we receive a stronger sense of the strangeness and hostility of this new world. In his eagerness to become a successful American, Haskell has assumed the language while letting his religious traditions fall by the wayside, something that Leah can't understand: "If it's something you believe, you just can't throw it away," she says. "It's part of you."
Children are born, business blossoms, wars begin and end, and the Hareliks begin to return something to their benefactors, as seen in two lovely scenes. Leah and Ima swap superstitions and shed suspicions in a comic carrot-peeling session; later, a shared shabbas meal that begins as a lesson in Old World tradition results in a prideful estrangement. By the time the Hareliks' three sons return from World War II, the patriarch has forgotten nearly everything that has gone before, remembering only his Russian origins.
This is a sentimental and familiar tale, and it can be cloying now and then. But as it expresses a universal experience, however far removed, it will strike a responsive chord in many. And though Harelik accents the comic element and deemphasizes the hardships -- a welcome change in the tradition of traumatic immigrant tales -- he shakes some pepper into the sugar in the second act, subtly suggesting the pain and loneliness of assimilation, and the insularity and egocentrism of Americans. "That's what worries me," Haskell tells the Perrys. "People think they are safe here . . . You've got to put some of your concern out into the world."
"The Immigrant" bears favorable comparison to the work of others who have shaped their ancestors' lives into works of art: Alex Haley's "Roots" comes immediately to mind, and more recently, Art Spiegelman's "Maus," in which he transformed his father's dire passage through the camps of Auschwitz into stirring "comic book" art.
Author Harelik is endearing and unflaggingly energetic as his grandfather. Ann Guilbert and Guy Raymond appear to have stepped out of a Grant Wood painting as Ima and Milton Perry, and Guilbert, in particular, touches the heart with her brittle directness. Terri Hanauer is a querulous and frail Leah, but her presence grows more assured as the character adjusts to her new home.
The playwright's spare storytelling has been fluidly shaped by director Randal Myler, who also directed "Quilters." Myler's work here has the same mix of hominess and ingenuity, and shows a grasp of the tensions between humor and severity, suspicion and generosity, in heartland folk.
Myler envisions the piece as a family photo album come to life, and his elegantly plain production incorporates montages of evocative music, sound effects and projected photographs that suggest the scene, then melt into stage action. As Haskell longingly writes to his wife in Russia, his window subtly evolves into her sepia-toned photograph, and there are many such affecting moments. Allen Lee Hughes' soft lighting is particularly sympathetic to Harelik's tribute, glittering hopefully through the chinks in a whitewashed wooden wall, glowing faintly through a gauzy scrim of memory.
The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album, by Mark Harelik. Directed by Randal Myler. Setting, Kevin Rupnik; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; costumes, Andrew V. Yelusich. With Ann Guilbert, Terri Hanauer, Mark Harelik, Guy Raymond. At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Aug. 16.