ATP’s Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is a dark, funny and moving musical that resonates today

In an election debate in 2015, Stephen Harper made a reference to “old stock Canadians” that launched a wave of controversy. Despite his later clarifications, many still felt that he chose the term as a racist contrast to more recent, non-white, non-Christian immigrants and refugees from countries other than England and France. That’s the obvious reference that frames Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, being presented now by Alberta Theatre Projects. While it’s more literally a musical portrait of playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s great-grandparents, arriving as Jewish refugees from Romania in the early 20th century, there are clear and frequent reminders that in many ways, everything old is new again. 

The initial image is simple: a shipping container takes centre stage. It opens to reveal a band of itinerant performers who use the container as a stage to tell a dark, funny, moving story.

We are first met by The Wanderer (Ben Caplan), who acts as MC, narrator, cantor, and Greek chorus. He introduces a pair of young Romanian Jews who meet while waiting in line to be processed by officials at the port of Halifax. Chaya (Shaina Silver-Baird) is a young woman who was widowed in Romania and has travelled here with her parents, siblings and large extended family. Chaim (Eric Da Costa) lost his parents and siblings to a pogrom and is alone. Chaya makes an impression on Chaim, and he seeks her out again in Montreal, when he finds that her family has also ended up there. Their happily-ever-after is challenged by his past traumas, her current mistrust, and the anti-Semitism of their new neighbours. “They come from a long line of preparing for a worst that usually comes,” explains The Wanderer. 

The tale is told with the aid of songs written mainly by Caplan and director Christian Barry (and yes, I’ve already bought the album). Caplan’s voice goes straight to your heart, like a more tuneful Tom Waits, and his delivery runs the gamut from mischievous to agonized. The songs owe much to klezmer and Eastern European folk music but aren’t too tied to the theme when the story needs something else, and rather than offering musical exposition, they provide a parenthetical and often metaphoric commentary to the action of the play. Humour is embedded throughout, from the cheeky Truth Doesn’t Live in a Book, arguing against dogmatic interpretation of scripture, to the darker You’ve Arrived. As the story and the accompanying songs get heavier, The Wanderer serves as comic relief to break the tension, giving the audience permission to step back a little and take a metaphoric (or maybe literal) breath. 

The show is a widely-toured production of 2b theatre company in Halifax, and although there have been some changes in the ensemble over its lifespan, this feels like a company that knows each other well. In addition to playing Chaim and Chaya, Da Costa plays woodwinds and Silver-Baird plays violin, and the characters’ relationship plays out in instrumental duets as much as it does in text. The company is rounded out by drummer Jeff Kingsbury providing both rhythm and sound effects, and music director Graham Scott on keyboards and accordion. 

From the “old stock” reference to another conservative gem, the “Canadian values test,” the text draws a explicit line from the refugee experience of Chaim and Chaya to those of today’s Syrians or Sudanese. But on the background of their troubled history is the main event, the love story of the title. As the final song asks: “A tangle of traumas, a rash of regrets, a bundle of burdensome yesterdays … What love can heartbreak allow?”

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story plays at the Martha Cohen Theatre until Feb. 16. For tickets and showtimes please go to

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.