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Tale of an immigrant family. Grandson's play glows with homespun humor, humanity

The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album Play by Mark Harelik. Directed by Randal Myler. A new land, safe from the horrors of pogroms, filled many a Russian Jewish immigrant's heart with hope. In America some found only poverty in the ghettos of larger cities; others settled in smaller communities and built new lives with little but their own industry and strong family feeling.

``The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album,'' by Mark Harelik at the Denver Center Theater, recounts the history of one such Russian immigrant -- the playwright's own grandfather. The new play ran last spring at the DCT to sold-out audiences and rave reviews. The current more-elaborate production comes in answer to popular demand.

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In 1911, Haskell Harelik arrives in Texas with no money, no English, and no friends. No other Jews live in Hamilton County, and the Christian community has only country superstitions to guide it in its dealings with the stranger in its midst. It expects to find horns on his head.

But Haskell's hard work, honesty, and open heart win him the ready aid of first Ima Perry and then her husband, Milton, the town banker. Ima takes him in as a boarder, and Milton takes him on as a partner in a fresh-fruit business. From banana peddler to grocer to dry-goods merchant, Haskell conquers poverty, culture shock, and eventually loneliness -- when he saves enough to send for his bride, Leah.

Mark Harelik's charming story unfolds with homespun humor and hearty humanity. We see some of Haskell's history and homeland through slides projected above the set: murderous czarist horsemen, hopeful boatloads of refugees fleeing to America, and the faces of ancestors, friends, and the growing Harelik family.

Freedom brings safety for Haskell and his bride, but a new necessity for compromise as well. There is no Jewish community, no kosher foods, no rabbis to teach their children. They must adjust if they are to survive and succeed. For the Perrys, the arrival of the Hareliks also brings changes: a new restraint and greater knowledge of the world around them.

In one amusing scene, the homesick and pregnant Leah tremulously visits Ima and offers to help in the kitchen. The women exchange superstitions, half believing, half doubting each other's stories. They are vastly amused to discover how well they do understand each other -- folk wisdom and all.

Not every scene works well, though. One soliloquy at the end of the play, when Haskell's grown-up son tells us of the family's current status in particularly saccharine terms, mars the otherwise affecting story.

The Denver company's production features the playwright in the lead. Harelik draws out subtle nuances of character that convince us of the worthiness, courage, and importance of a simple man.

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Veteran performer Ann Guilbert invests Ima Perry with a range of gentle feeling that consistently delights. Her comic timing is superb. Guy Raymond, as Milton, complements Guilbert perfectly. The little tensions between Milton and Ima over religion and domesticity never sink into viciousness, and Raymond's dry comic style underscores the deep affections of his character.

Under Randal Myler's able direction, we never feel circumscribed in a small town or small lives. The staging is sometimes awkward, however -- the story seems unsuited to production in the round. Occasionally during a crucial moment we may not be able to see the play of emotion on an actor's face. But the fine sound effects, the easy integration of the slides in Kevin Rupnik's suggestive set design, and the keen attention to gesture, expression, and movement polish Harelik's lively, lovely, lasting delineation of a family's history. Plays through Saturday.

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