The production, which opens Thursday, shows 'the incredible gifts that follow when we welcome others into our lives.'
There’s an old axiom associated with the word “assume.” It makes an … well, you know the rest.
Case in point: The guests at Betty Meeks’ fishing lodge in rural Georgia assume Charlie Baker is OK to talk around because they think he’s a foreigner who doesn’t speak English.
But, in fact, he IS English, just painfully shy and uncomfortable talking to strangers. And because they all assume he’s “safe,” a parade of characters in and out of the lodge spill their secrets around him — with hilarious effects.
Thus the premise of “The Foreigner,” the latest production by the Ocala Civic Theatre. The award-winning, two-act farce by playwright Larry Shue runs 20 performances through April 8.
Director Chip Morris, in his director’s note, contends that “The Foreigner” isn’t likely to “challenge one’s world view."
“Its primary offerings are laughter and antics,” he continues, “but having softened one’s heart through these first two, it sneaks up on the viewer with a poignant message of friendship, kindness and the incredible gifts that follow when we welcome others into our lives.
“It forces us to look at ourselves and see the ridiculousness of how we may treat those not like us.”
Shue died in a plane crash a year after “The Foreigner” opened Off-Broadway in 1984. It ran 686 performances and won two Obie Awards and the Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best New American Play and Best Off-Broadway Production.
He debuted the character of Froggy, a larger-than-life British demolitions expert who drags his friend Charlie along on this trip to the States for some solitude to contemplate his depressing life.
It’s his idea for Charlie to pose as someone from an exotic land who “doesn’t speak a word of English.” That way he doesn’t have to talk with anyone.
With Froggy “what you see is what you get,” said Chris Williams, who plays Froggy LeSueur in this production. “He’s solid, knows what he’s going to do. He’s just like my dad.”
Though Shue played Froggy, it’s the Charlie role that peers into the playwright’s mind. In a eulogy, Canadian actor Jeff Brooks said, “I know damn well he wrote Charlie for himself.”
OCT vet Tony Palumbo is Charlie in this version. “He’s so shredded and damaged, Charlie is just a shadow of himself,” Palumbo said during a rehearsal break. “He comes to this place for a few days of solace. In the process he finds real friendship.”
The deteriorating lodge is owned and run by the widowed Betty, played by OCT newcomer Barbara Russell. Though new to the OCT stage, she’s not unfamiliar with the role: She played Betty at the Newark Players some years back.
Betty, Russell said, “is mostly naïve.” Having never gone beyond the bounds of Tilghman County, she thinks the “exotic” foreigner under her roof is exciting. “He gives meaning to her life again,” she said.
As the action unfolds, Charlie — the unwitting collector of secrets at first — is able to have some fun later with the miscreants, who include a gold-digging clergyman and the KKK.
“Everybody grows to appreciate the foreigner,” Morris said. “Eventually we learn the strengths of our society are furthered by the concept of accepting each other for who we are.”
He said the play was written in the early 1980s, at a time of rising white supremacy and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Moreover, Morris added, in American society there is an “Other” — people who look different, talk different, dress different. Often they are demonized.
“Shue felt it was necessary to continue to mock a movement that would not die,” he said. “He knew the only way to deal with xenophobia was to mock it, laugh at it.”