Review: Dramateurs’ ‘Foreigner’ is a Farce with a Dark Side

A scene from Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner”. Photo by Gabrielle Cherelli

by J.S. Alleva

American playwright Larry Shue, who wrote The Foreigner as a two-act comedy in 1983, could hardly have guessed that his outlandish farce would one day hit uncomfortably close to present reality. Steeped in slapstick and buffoonery, The Foreigner also touches on cruelty, greed and blatant xenophobia.  Balancing these shadows is a wealth of lighthearted charm, silliness and wry humor.  Produced by The Dramateurs at The Barn Playhouse, this show is well worth seeing, to laugh, to ponder, and to witness a resolution that is both heart-warming and faith-restoring. The show runs only until October 14th, however, so act fast to get your tickets now.

The Foreigner takes place in the recent past, in an old fishing lodge in Tilghman County, Georgia, a gathering place run by a sweet older woman named Betty. When two Englishmen come to visit, things go from humdrum to high shenanigans.  Froggy, an old friend of Betty’s, is a British military demolitions expert on a local US field job.  His traveling companion is a shy, socially-awkward fellow named Charlie, who agrees to stay only at the behest of his dying wife.  Froggy gives his bummed-out pal a social ‘out’ by presenting him as an exotic foreigner who speaks no English. Froggy assumes this will deter the other visitors, and thereby takes his leave.  Betty, meanwhile, has long dreamed of visiting far-off places, and delights in ‘communicating’ with her foreign guest. The other visitors, including a high-minded preacher, his pregnant fiancée, and a loud-mouthed property inspector, are also convinced that Charlie cannot understand them, and therefore blab freely, unwittingly divulging their deepest secrets. Charlie, now privy to eye-popping scandals, is compelled to throw off his milktoast mantle and take bold action to right impending wrongs before it’s too late.

Directed by Robert Marsch, assistant directed by Ashley Joy Miller and produced by Dee Henken, this production of The Foreigner brings Larry Shue’s comedy to life, fearlessly allowing the hilarious moments to stand juxtaposed to the more shocking bits, which makes a powerful statement about how life can often be that way, and that hilarity can be a great healer.

Kevin Walters plays Charlie Baker, a British sci-fi copy editor (skills which come in handy as the play progresses). Charlie believes himself to be irredeemably boring, and is steadfastly dedicated to his ill wife who, it turns out, is slightly less-than-faithful.  Walters’ character traverses a wide range of comic emotion from utter oblivion to overly-bright cheerfulness to thunderous ferocity. He creates his own language to entertain his fellow lodge residents, and pretends to slowly learn English to their amazement.  As ‘the foreigner,’ he endures embarrassing secrets, belittling outbursts, and patronizing threats with British resolve.

Sgt. “Froggy” LeSueur is deftly portrayed by Patrick McGurk, who begins as a clever and supportive friend of mild-mannered Charlie, and then stands mystified and slightly irked by the remarkable transformation of his quiet friend, making McGurk’s performance a very human and at times hilarious one.

Betty Meeks, the lodge proprietor, is played with exuberance and charm by Rosemary Gehrlein. Betty, a good-hearted, robust Southern widow, has grown world-weary, and is down in the dumps until Charlie arrives, unintentionally making her day.  Gehrlein’s bubbling-over enthusiasm for hosting a ‘real live foreigner’ is contagious and utterly delightful.

Stephen Waters plays the Reverend David Marshall Lee, a noble do-gooder, who is preternaturally patient with his irritatingly-loud and brash fiancée Catherine Simms, portrayed with gusto by Alexis Leigh Ross.  As Catherine’s unseemly outbursts reach an almost unbearable peak, the vulnerable reason behind them is revealed, and her tender side begins to emerge with Charlie’s help.  Catherine finds in silent Charlie a much-needed and kindly ear.

In a powerful standout performance, and his debut at The Barn, Michael Tamin Yurcaba elevates the role of shifty property inspector Owen Musser to a shockingly-realistic level, capturing the cringe-worthy ethos of the “Klan.” It is Yurcaba’s performance which takes this show out of the realm of pure farce and into the steaming reality of current events, which may be uncomfortable at times.  Shue’s script and an ensemble cast’s comedic performance pierces the tension and bring the audience back to laughter.

Catherine’s brother Ellard Simms is poignantly played by Michael Rizzo, who uses effective mannerisms and vocal skill to render a believable mentally-impaired young man, whose innocence is almost shattered by the good Reverend’s subtle gaslighting.  Ellard is empowered, however, in Charlie’s presence, and he generously offers his simple teaching skills to help Charlie learn the language. Ellard’s innocence and earnestness captivate and inspire Charlie to be the hero he never dreamed he could be.

With carpentry by Steve Gehrlein, set decoration by Alexis Leigh Ross, properties by Cheryl Balas and Maureen Scallatino, and set construction by the team of Tim Bean, Steve Gehrlein, Dee Henken, John Henken, Robert Marsch, Ashley Joy Miller, Dave Richman, Mike Rizzo, Alexis Leigh Ross, Maureen Scallatino, Kevin Waters and Michael Tamin Yurcaba, this production’s highly-effective stage design creates an authentic sense of rural life, with green-tinged rustic wood paneling, plaid upholstery and duck motif art. The furniture selection, props, and décor are spot on, from the well-sooted stone fireplace to the muddy rubber boots upstage.

Sound & Lighting design by Steve DiNenno and Lightboard operation by Marianne DiNenno and Dean Soltes bring realistic lightning blasts and thunder cracks to the play’s stormy beginning. Costumes by Christine Jackson and Hair & Make up by Sharon Mauch are effective in depicting a range of character ages.  Christa Fisher provided an opening night party with autumn-themed refreshments including hot apple cider, pumpkin bread, apples and cheese–a very nice touch. Cast photography by Gabrielle Cherelli and Leslie Hopper is featured in large displays in the lobby, well appreciated by theatregoers eager to see more of the cast.

The Foreigner’s resolution, the take-home of the evening, shows us all the true power of diversity and mutual respect. When we come together and embrace our differences–whether race, creed or mental state—and honor these as strengths instead of weaknesses, we can arrive at surprisingly creative solutions.  Comedy is, and has always been, one of the best vehicles for affecting social change, and this run of The Foreigner, while short, may be just long enough to open a few minds and hearts.

The play is performed in two Acts with a 15-minute intermission.  There is ample parking in the gravel lot adjacent to the theatre, and an access ramp flanks the stairs leading to the entrance. Restrooms are easily accessible from the theatre lobby.  The theatre can be chilly at times, so dressing in layers is advised.  The Barn Playhouse is located at the corner of Rittenhouse Boulevard and Christopher Street, off Ridge Pike, three miles west of Norristown.  Call 610-539-BARN for directions from your location.  Tickets are available at http://barnplayhouse.org.

Remaining dates are:  Oct. 12, 13, 14

For more info on this production of The Foreigner, please contact:

The Dramateurs, Inc. at The Barn Playhouse
Christopher Lane & Rittenhouse Blvd
Jeffersonville, PA 19403
610-539-BARN
www.barnplayhouse.org