Tacoma Little Theatre kicked off its 100th season with Larry Shue’s 1984 comedy, “The Foreigner,” which is directed by Casi Pruitt. For its 100th season, TLT is playing shows from its century of existence. “The Foreigner” first played at TLT in 2002.
The story takes place at a rural fishing lodge by a lake in Georgia. Froggy (Mikel Michener), a British explosives expert, has brought along Charlie (Blake R. York), a friend who is disliked by his own wife and considers himself to be a man devoid of personality. Charlie is overcome with fear at the very thought of making conversation with strangers. To protect his friend, Froggy tells everyone that Charlie is a foreigner who can’t speak English and is embarrassed about this. Charlie is then left alone with the characters who inhabit the lodge: Betty (Jen Aylsworth), the widowed proprietor; lovely young Catherine (Caiti Burke); a local heiress; Catherine’s “slow” brother Ellard (Charlie Stevens); Catherine’s fiancé the Reverend David (Cody Wyld Flower); and a stereotypical loud, Southern bigot named Owen (Brian Cox).
Since everyone assumes that Charlie can’t speak English, they talk freely around him, thus unwittingly reveling their secrets both good and bad. The whole story is rather cartoonish and there is much physical humor blended into the mix. A rather sweet love story also unfolds during the course of the play.
The two-act comedy was written by American playwright Larry Shue in 1984 and has become a staple of both professional and armature theater. Tragically, Shue died in plane crash a year after “The Foreigner” premiered. He was only 39. “The Foreigner” is one of his best-known plays. Another is “The Nerd.”
The elaborate set, designed by York, the show’s leading man, recreates a rural lodge with fishing decorations and trophy fish hanging on the wood-paneled walls. A solid cast breathes life into this comedy. York plays the lead role of Charlie with great physicality. He gets laughs with body postures and facial expressions alone. The script calls for Charlie to engage in any number of very gestural antics. His success is registered by the laughter of the audience, which was clearly entertained by York’s slapstick ability.
Froggy, played by Michener, is the sane character, a smart and amiable Englishman who is looking after his friend. Michener makes Froggy a warm and believable character – a good soul.
Aylsworth plays Betty – the open and vivacious embodiment of Southern hospitality – over the top. She is loud, good natured and loving.
Burke, the vivacious actress who plays Catherine, has appeared in other TLT productions. As a soul girl in last Season’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” she exhibits an easy sensuality in her dance numbers. It is nice to get to see Burke breaking out into a leading role.
High schooler Stevens, who plays Ellard, is a theatrical dynamo. I’ve seen him in a number of productions over the past couple of years and he is always impressive and expressive.
Cox plays the vile Owen – loud, obnoxious; arrogant in his ignorance – so well that I had an urge to boo the character at the end. (Instead I applauded the actor who did so well in his depiction of the villain.)
Flower, as the two-faced reverend David/fiancé of Catherine, is making his Puget Sound debut with this production.
For all its comedy and cartoon-like qualities, there are some frightening scenes in act two, when unwelcome guests come to the lodge. For an instant, there is the sobering realization of what it could mean to be isolated and caught in the midst of men filled with utter hatred and fear.
Overall, the play examines what it means to encounter an outsider, a “foreigner.” For some, like Betty, Catherine and Ellard, outsiders have a certain magic and charm. Difference is viewed as exciting, interesting and novel.
To others, like David and Owen, outsiders are threatening. Owen assumes that Charlie – the titular foreigner – has some sort of occult power (hoo-doo). Foreigners exercise devilry.
Owen is also the “ugly American,” who assumes that a person who does not speak English is “a dummy.”
TLT’s “The Foreigner” is a delightful excursion that nevertheless works as a timely reminder in a time when our country seems torn over how we should regard all the “foreigners” both out there abroad and in here, at home.
“The Foreigner” runs through Sept. 30. For information on ticketing and scheduling, visit http://www.tacomalittletheatre.com.