Chaya and Chaim were the playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s paternal great-grandparents. Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is Moscovitch’s approximate retelling of the story of their early life together. Chaya and Chaim fled a pogrom in Romania, immigrated to Canada in 1908, met in Halifax’s famous Pier 21, married in Montreal, and had a family. Halifax’s 2b theatre company’s production of Old Stock, directed by Moscovitch’s partner, Christian Barry, has been touring the world to great acclaim since 2017. This is its second visit to the National Arts Centre.
The NAC is marketing Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story as a “laugh-out-loud klezmer music-theatre hybrid.” It’s true that Old Stock has some funny lines such as ”How do you like Canada?” asks Chaim. Chaya retorts, “Have you been outside?” When the immigrant couple’s first child is born, Chaim exalts, “A Canadian! That baby is going to grow up shovelling snow!” (Appreciative laughter from the opening night audience.) And there’s plenty of zippy klezmer music performed by two on-stage musicians—Jeff Kingsbury and Kelsey McNulty–and the three excellent actors—Mary Fay Coady as Chaya, Eric Da Costa as Chaim, and Ben Caplan as The Wanderer, the larger-than-life Master of Ceremonies. Caplan also wrote most of the songs.
But most of the story is grim. Chaim’s entire family were killed, horribly, in the pogrom. Chaya and her beloved first husband fled Romania for Russia, but he died of typhus on the way there, and their infant son died of starvation soon after. Once in Canada, they face a chilly welcome (“None is too many, I hear you say.”) and the vagaries of immigration bureaucrats (“You make some markings on a page, and seal my fate.”), then endure persistent racism in Montreal from the “old stock” Canadians. Initially, their marriage is unhappy—Chaim is sometimes unintentionally cruel in his naiveté, and Chaya is still grieving the loss of her first husband. The Traveller asks us, “They come from a long line of preparing for the worst. And it comes. Can they be happy?”
Like the play Cabaret, it’s important in Old Stock to pay attention to what our MC, The Traveller, says. Early on, he tells the audience, “It’s about Jewish refugees and we hope you see some of yourself in it.” Phrases we should all recognize from recent political speeches, including “barbaric cultural practices” and, of course, the phrase “old stock Canadians,” are sprinkled through The Traveller’s monologues… an unsubtle reminder that anti-immigrant sentiments are still alive and well in Canada in 2019. Obviously, Moscovitch, Barry and Caplan are aiming to comment on current Canadian failings. We haven’t advanced as much as we think we have… think of the widespread positive or muted reactions to Quebec’s Bill 21.
Some people seated nearby on opening night commented that this performance was even better than the last time they saw it. One woman said it was her third time seeing Old Stock. I suspect this crowd-pleasing play will attract a substantial audience to the NAC. Whether it increases the audience’s empathy for refugees is an open question.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is playing at the National Arts Centre (1 Elgin St) in the Babs Asper Theatre until October 27, 2019. The NAC warns that there are mature themes and some strong language. The performance starts at 7:30 pm. The play is 85 minutes long, with no intermission. Information and tickets are available online at and at the box office.