- ENGLISH LESSON: "The Foreigner" is funny and meaningful.
Eavesdropping on private conversations may be easy if, because you don't speak their language, you're practically invisible to those around you. Larry Shue's "The Foreigner" takes advantage of that fact to create a clever, extremely funny and profound play at the Weekend Theater.
After being persuaded by his sick wife who finds him boring, Charlie Baker (Duane Jackson) agrees to go on a trip with his friend Froggy LeSueur (Jacob Sturgeon). The two British gents end up in rural Georgia where military man Froggy visits the local army base to conduct field operations in demolitions. For their stay, Froggy has set them up in a fishing lodge, but facing the prospect of his unfaithful wife dying, Charlie can do without the small talk of provincial life. Froggy's solution is to exploit small town insularity and ignorance by mentioning to Betty Meeks (Roben R. Sullivant), the lodge owner, that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn't understand English. Absurdity ensues as a mentally challenged guest, Ellard Simms (Drew Ellis), takes up the project of teaching English to Charlie. The introduction of Ellard's sister, Catherine (Larissa Garvin), reveals a Machiavellian subplot as her fiance, David (Chad Fulmer), a minister, schemes with the 'Murica-lovin' racist county property inspector, Owen Musser (Jeff Lewellen), to condemn the lodge so that he and David can purchase it for dirt cheap. Meanwhile, David continues to keep up the lie of loving Catherine long enough to get married and access her inheritance. Through most of this, poor Charlie is merely a sounding board for others to voice their insecurities.
I was intrigued with the story and how people can be infantilized when they don't understand the native tongue. Charlie goes from a largely silent figure who parrots a few English words here and there to a reasonably eloquent fellow by the end of the play. Playing the role of Charlie required Jackson to show a character incrementally maturing in language and understanding of his society, while at the same time reminding us that he is fully aware of what's going on — a play within a play. Roben Sullivant is exceptional as the lodge matriarch. Her boisterous voice and sarcasm in exchanges with Charlie is memorable, especially when juxtaposed to her character's more anxious and uncertain side.
The stage set for the fishing lodge is homey, with worn furniture, which seems like a metaphor for many of the characters — comfortable with their ignorance, provincial and an aversion to difference. The sofa and kitchen table props add to the unique dynamic that exists between the characters. For example, Ellard and Charlie are placed face-to-face at the table when Ellard gives him his "English lesson" as Charlie looks on with feigned interest. Charlie sits side by side on the sofa with Catherine, the two looking more like good friends or lovers, as she asks him questions about his past and home country. The play's use of lighting is especially notable when we come across America's most notorious homegrown terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan. Initially presented to the audience in the dimly lit lodge — the people have turned out the lights in the hope the Klan will pass them by — when the sheeted men are visible in the fully lit lodge, they are run off by fear of Charlie's "magic powers." Culturally in the dark, placing them in the light showed that they are as afraid of the people they're committed to scaring as those people are of them.
"The Foreigner" forces us to look at ourselves and see the ridiculousness of how we may treat those not like us. And for this, we should take the time to laugh at ourselves.