It's worth the trip to see this `Foreigner'

Dependable comedy lets Columbia Community Players deliver again

Howard Live

Theater review

June 01, 2000|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Near the beginning of Larry Shue's "The Foreigner," a pathologically bashful man named Charlie Baker asks himself this question: "What would it be like to have a personality?"

The play, amusingly performed by the Columbia Community Players, is a funny two-hour answer. Charlie has a personality thrust upon him when his friend, a military explosives expert named Froggy LeSueur, drops Charlie off at a Georgia fishing lodge while Froggy goes on maneuvers. Charlie is terrified of talking to strangers, so Froggy tells Betty Meeks - the kindly widow who owns the lodge - that Charlie is a foreigner who can't speak English.

This is a terrific comic set-up. As Charlie sits around pretending not to understand anything, the people who run in and out of the lodge allow him to hear all sorts of secrets - including one that may put Betty and her lodge in jeopardy.

The bad guys include a two-faced minister and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, so Shue clearly had a message of tolerance to deliver. (The play was first seen in New York in 1984; Shue died the next year.) But he wrapped his ideas in riotous packaging; the clash of ignorant but kind-hearted Georgians and a faux foreigner makes for some classic comic bits.

"He don't understand no English," Betty explains, "not even when it's real loud!"

The Georgians surrounding Charlie are a varied bunch, and they're nicely played by director Bob Russell's cast.

Betty is the soul of the play - she's bumbling, but very sweet - and Lois Sanders is blissful in the part. John Parry plays Ellard Simms, the local dimwit. Parry is tall and lean, and he's dressed in blue overalls and a T-shirt by costume designer Conni Ross, which makes him look like an overgrown kid. Parry's Ellard is a peculiar but highly enthusiastic English teacher to Charlie: For Ellard, "yeah" and "fork" are two-syllable words.

Chester Myrick Stacy is smooth and gentle as the deceptive Rev. David Marshall Lee, who is engaged to the bright but unhappy Catherine Simms (Elizabeth Darby). Catherine is Ellard's older sister. She has inherited a large sum of money - some of which may or may not go to Ellard, depending on her opinion of his competence - and that looms large.

Kevin Donnelly plays Owen Musser as a snarling redneck - the spiritual opposite of Betty, who is charmed, not inflamed, by Charlie's exoticism as a "foreigner."

At first, Tom Templeton plays Charlie as a man who would like to crawl into a shell. But gradually, Templeton's Charlie - inside his "foreign" armor - gains surprising confidence and imagination.

It's fun to watch Charlie toy with Owen and the sneaky reverend in ways they don't comprehend, yet Templeton wisely never loses Charlie's essential innocence.

Set designer Joe Blasko turns the stage at Slayton House into a Southern fishing lodge (plaid sofa, deer head on the wall).

Technically, there are minor oddities - thunderclaps before lightning flashes, for instance - and the dramatic confrontations aren't as rewarding as the comic encounters. But generally, this is a smooth performance of what has been, for the past 15 years, one of the country's most popular comedies.

Columbia Community Players presents "The Foreigner" at Slayton House in the Wilde Lake Village Green at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through June 10. Tickets are $10 general admission, $9 for students and seniors. Group rates are available. Information: 410-637-5289.

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