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The Foreigner

Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., April 9, 2004

The Foreigner

Paramount Theatre, April 3

It doesn't take long to see how Charlie – the mysterious "foreigner" who supposedly speaks not a word of English (even though he is, in fact, an Englishman) – works his positive magic on the countrified souls puttering about old Betty Meeks' nearly condemned fishing lodge in this revival of Larry Shue's popular play. For the downtrodden and variously faded lodge denizens, Charlie provides rays of hope, allowing them to bloom again; for the shysters and the wicked, Charlie's light pierces their nefarious plans, exposing their bigotry and lies. Charlie is a chameleon, becoming that missing element for whomever he meets, making them whole again. And as he effects change in those around him, so, too, does he gain strength and confidence, becoming a better person for his efforts, coming out of his shell in ways he never expected.

It is a lovely idea, honestly and affectionately brought to the stage by the same team that created the Greater Tuna franchise. All the familiar faces are back for this touring production, led by local theatre luminaries Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, who play Charlie and Betty Meeks, respectively. Williams' Charlie – in reality a brooding, painfully shy Englishman – arrives porting the baleful face of a basset hound in mourning, until he begins to see how his pretending can help turn a dispiriting situation into a multifaceted triumph. Williams takes on the challenge of chameleonlike change through playful physicality to swinging simian antics, and his command of gobbledygook speech is brilliant. Playwright Shue gives the character several tour-de-force turns – all in some phony foreign tongue – and Williams is well up for the challenge. The linguistic games are delightful, and Williams plays them cleverly throughout. Sears, in familiar drag, plays the supporting role of lodge-keeper Betty Meeks, a woman bursting with a chipper individualist's view of the world. The first to take to Charlie as a bona fide foreigner, Sears' Betty rallies as his defender, gaining strength and a certain brashness from her newfound role. Kathleen Couser plays ex-debutante Catherine Simms, pregnant and engaged to the increasingly nasty Rev. David Marshall Lee; in Charlie, she finds someone in whom she can finally confide all her secrets, and it opens her up beautifully. Tim Mateer is the supposed simpleton Ellard Simms, Catherine's little brother, a man-child frozen out of the family inheritance because he can't run his own life. Charlie provides him with the opportunity to explore his actual smarts, and Mateer is excellent as he turns from credulousness to confidence. The comedic work between Williams and Mateer is bring-the-house-down funny. Richard Jones is the Englishman's army friend, responsible for the lie that Charlie understands no English, and equal parts military stiff and gregarious best friend. The two nasties, the Rev. Lee and local Klansman Owen Musser, are ably played by Robert Newell and Luther "Corky" Williams, respectively; both work either side of the fine line between believability and outlandishness that is the hallmark of this mostly gentle comedy.

While it takes little time for Charlie to work his magic, it takes even less time for Williams and Sears to work their magic on an eager house. The familiarity between the actors and their audience makes The Foreigner oftentimes a raucous evening of explosive hilarity (perhaps more so than could legitimately be mined from Shue's sometimes awkward script). What makes this production such a joy is seeing those familiar faces working together so sharply for such an appreciative audience.

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