The Sierra Madre Playhouse has built a stellar reputation by usually offering lighter theatrical fare than the Pasadena Playhouse, Boston Court and A Noise Within. But in its current play “The Immigrant,” it is diving in on the hot-button issue of immigration by following the true story of a Jewish refugee from Russia making a life in Texas starting in 1909.
Not only has the play itself proven to be a strong draw among the Playhouse’s fan base, but it also served as the catalyst for a special discussion called “Immigration Today” on April 29, which featured Ahilan Arulanantham, a 2016 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and director of advocacy and legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California; Luis Nolasco, the theater’s community engagement and policy advocate; and Andres Kwon, an Equal Justice Works Emerson Fellow.
According to the play’s director, Simon Levy, the show’s universal message is relatable across the time span from the play’s action at the turn of the last century and into America’s roiling debates of today.
“The immigration issue and themes resonate for today, and that’s one of the reasons that [SMP producer] Christian Lebano chose the play,” says Levy. “But it’s also a beautiful story as I think we discover over and over again, the universality of its ideas and thoughts. This is about Jewish immigrants, but it speaks to anybody who comes to a new country and tries to create a new life. The themes within the play resonate deeply for us now because of the headlines we’re dealing with every day, especially with this [Trump] administration.”
Told with a solid helping of humor, “The Immigrant” is based on the story of author Mark Harelik’s grandfather, a young Jew who fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia in 1909 and pushed his banana cart into the tiny Baptist community of Hamilton, Texas. Given shelter by a childless older couple, he sent for his wife, raised a family and made this town his home, resulting in a tale of parents and children, newcomers and natives, Christians and Jews, and the realization of the American Dream.
The play marks the first SMP production for Levy, 69, an immigrant himself since he was born in England and moved to San Francisco with his family when he was two years old. His first creative passion was playing saxophone, but he became involved with theater at 22 and has built his career around it ever since, with his primary job serving as the producing director of the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood since 1993.
“It’s always important for me to be truthful and honest, and important to make sure things are authentic,” says Levy. “I believe in verisimilitude, and I think if you present something truthfully it resonates for people. This play required a lot of research because it starts in 1909 and goes forward into 1985. It took a lot of research from me to make sure the portrayals were accurate, whether due to the accents, religious beliefs or culture they come from.”
“The Immigrant” runs through May 26 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Tickets are $25 to $40. Call (626) 355-4318 or visit sierramadreplayhouse.org.