Regional Reviews: St. Louis
And yet a troubling scourge of pride and xenophobia dogs the second act, staining The Immigrant with an air of betrayal, after a fight between its two male characters. And they never reconcile their differences. Perhaps the women in Mark Harelik's play (about his grandparents) redeem the men, in their failings, through the quiet joy and decency of the two wives in the story. And a final, sad farewell scene between the two men puts drama on a very high plane, under the insightful direction of Rebekah Scallet.
The playwright creates a moral crisis that's impossible for him to solve, between a stoic Texas banker, Milton Perry (the outstanding David Wassilak), and the stubborn Russian Jewish man, Haskell (the very fine Dustin Lane Petrillo), who builds a family business in the Lone Star state. Mr. Wassilak has never done so much with so little obvious effort, nor been so intriguing, and Mr. Petrillo is almost endlessly winning. Good casting and great commitment from both on-stage couples sets the stage for the crisis to come.
Haskell goes from earnest victim to (briefly) outraged polemicist in a sabbath dinner scene that strays into talk of Hitler in the 1930s (Petrillo accomplishes the outburst here with aplomb). And Milton lacks empathy right before that awful clash, mouthing the isolationist line of the "America First" movement. There are great dramatic forces (at least potentially) at work in the hands of these sensitive artists. But their dispute is never resolved, and vital theatrical elements are left (by the playwright) to bleach in the Texas sun. Later, an air of self-congratulation weighs down a son's epilogue in this two hour and forty-five minute story (with one 15 minute intermission).
Mindy Shaw is wonderfully warm as the agnostic banker's Baptist wife Ima, and Bryn McLaughlin is the ultimate outsider as the Russian's betrothed Leah. The two women buoy the story, and each other. Their little dance, to bridge a cultural divide, is pure magic. Before that, Petrillo's Haskell, rocking Leah in his arms, creates a resounding stage image of a weeping bride recalling a long ocean crossing. In a happier scene, Milton teaches a mockingbird how to sing three different tunes.
As is often the case at the "J," there are on-stage prayers before sabbath meals among the characters in the play. But the opening night audience lacked many of the usual seventy, or eighty, or even ninety-year-olds from the nearby campus retirement village, who typically murmur along with the familiar scriptures. So the haunting repetition of the prayers, from out in the dark in the audience, went unheard that night.
Anyway, at the risk of stating the obvious, a spiritual mindset is supposed to fix things, not just to make you feel better. But in this case, the whispers of the ancients were replaced by the song of a mockingbird.
The Immigrant runs through October 29, 2023, at the Wool Studio Theatre, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.newjewishtheatre.org