A play currently running at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick tells the real-life story of a Russian -Jewish man that made his way to the United States in the early 1900’s. The Immigrant, written by Mark Harelik, follows his grandfather Haskell’s pursuit of the American Dream.
Ang Santos: In studio we have Benjamin Pelteson, he plays Haskell in the George Street Production. Benjamin thanks for joining us on the WBGO Journal.
Benjamin Pelteson: Thanks for having me.
AS: Take us through Haskell’s humble beginnings in this play?
BP: He begins his story in Russia in a pogrom in 1909. He flees some really terrible violence and comes to a small town in Texas. Originally through Galveston but he ends up in Hamilton, Texas where he’s taken in by a banker and his wife. He plants some roots in this country and makes a success of his time here.
AS: This is a different type of character than the one’s I assume you usually play.
BP: Yeah. I don’t often play people form this time period. I have played a lot of Jewish characters over the years. This one has a very particular story. It’s a little different than what I usually do.
AS: What are the challenges in taking on this role?
BP: The first third of this part I speak Yiddish in the play. I don’t speak Yiddish. I grew up in Florida. It’s not something we spoke around the house. I had to learn that, a completely different language using a coach on my own. That was a particular challenge. Then I have an accent that over the course of the thirty years in the play changes. At the beginning of the play I barely speak any English and then I learn more and more, pretty quickly. But then there’s a jump in the play of about thirty years and I have to figure out what happens to somebody’s voice and the way they speak thirty years into a new country. How much have they lost? How much have they retained from where they came from?
AS: The cast of actors in The Immigrant is made up of four. Who are your talented castmates?
BP: It’s me and my wife who is played by an actress named Lauriel Friedman. Then another couple who takes us in. They are both from Texas, very Christian, good hearted woman named Ima who’s played by Gretchen Hall and her husband who’s a banker in the town. He’s a really big deal in this small town. His name is Milton and he’s played by Ward Duffy.
AS: What’s your favorite part about playing the character Haskell Harelick?
BP: This guy has such a big heart. This person is dealing with so many terrible things in his past but manages to find a real spirit of generosity, resilience and optimism in every moment of his day instead of dwelling on what’s terrible in his background. He’s really in a very open-hearted way looking for a way to make a new life here. I think that’s a really beautiful thing to experience every day.
Benjamin Peltson, plays Haskell Harelick in the George Street Playhouse production of The Immigrant, running until April 7th. To hear the full-length interview, click the link above.