Despite having written the preview for The Foreigner, my eyes somehow skipped over the fact that playwright Larry Shue was also the author of The Nerd. While his name might not be as recognizable as Tennessee Williams or Neil Simon, the latter play was one of the first I ever saw staged in person, and when I read that in the playbill, it immediately became the same as telling someone “we’re taking you to see the new Woody Allen film.” My brain snapped a transparency over the set, was ready to plug in the caricature characters, and prepped for sight gags and puns. That easy. But if you walk into the Station’s current production, directed by Thom Schnarre, with expectations, prepare to have them exceeded.
The fact that The Foreigner was written in the early eighties might also prepare you for the types of topics and jokes that occur throughout the piece – most of us in the audience lived through that decade consciously, even if not all the actors did. And while the script is unchanged, the director, actors, and creative team found great ways to make the play pertinent to today: a discussion about Princess Di’s potential baby name was delivered dripping with sarcasm; props like cell phones and fidget spinners blended in seamlessly. (Un)fortunately, the themes and humor still seemed relevant without too much intervention. I mean, it’s fortunate for us as an audience, because good theatre makes us both laugh and think; the parenthetical is only to reflect that the world really hasn’t come forward as much as we’d like to think in the last thirty years.
Through the main plot device – introverted, grieving Charlie is introduced as a foreigner who doesn’t speak or understand English – Shue wanted to explore the secrets we all keep from each other and ourselves, down as deep as our true natures. Because of that, almost every character is seeded with a hidden agenda and underlying depth.
Except Betty and Froggy, those folks are true WYSIWYG*s, and the play is better off for it. Chris Taber and Jace Jamison take the one-note nature of their characters and make sure those ring consistent and clear, setting up jokes and keeping the laughs coming. While I personally may not know any Southern aging hippies or British military bros, their particular brand of foreign is well-enough known ‘round these parts. Salt of the earth, Betty & Froggy, no wonder they get on so well.
Jon Faw as Rev. David and Jace Jamison as Froggy LeSeur ; Chris Taber as Betty Meeks.
Evan Seggebruch did a phenomenal job conveying Ellard Simms’ awkward self. He was so infectious that it was simply natural for the audience to root for him as he became increasingly enthusiastic about teaching English to Charlie. Catherine Simms, Ellard’s older sister as played by Shawna Smith, is the character who most obviously grows as a person throughout the play. As she slowly reveals her arc, Smith makes it clear to the audience that Catherine is discovering these things gradually, allowing us to witness those moments where she feels conviction click into place.
Evan Seggebruch not at all proving my point as Ellard Simms ; Shawna Smith as his sister, Catherine.
It’s hard for me to feel warmly toward clergy, and Rev. David isn’t written to engender empathy, but Jon Faw made it apparent what missing piece he was filling in Catherine’s life, and how easy it was to present himself in the best possible light. Matt Hester’s Owen Musser was such a convincing asshat that I felt myself flinch when he came onstage, and also expected to smell him from my seat. Gross, but great.
Which leaves Charlie, our cripplingly introverted, boring cuck. The actual, alleged, “foreigner”. William Anthony Sebastian Rose II has a reputation for being a comedic actor, although my experiences with him – Mine and Every Brilliant Thing – have both been solidly dramatic. Finally, I got to see what folks mean when they talk about his aptitude for physical comedy. One of my favorite things to watch in this type of over-the-top farce is the reactions of the other players. The Foreigner is designed specifically for this; almost the entire play revolves around Charlie’s expressions, or forced lack of, when people are talking near him and expecting that he doesn’t understand. Rose is a delight to watch at all times, whether he is involved directly in the main action or merely observing. Charlie also travels among several accents, at least two of which are made up, and although each was given attention and precision, I have to say I liked (and believed) the exaggerated Southern the best. My ears had no idea that “lamp” could “end in ump” until I heard it from Rose.
All that to say, while many of these characters could count as “foreign” in our micro-urban Midwest town, the universal humanity of each came through.
Director Schnarre spoke a briefly in the preview about the concept and motivations behind casting a person of color in Charlie’s role. I liked the extra layer of meaning, and the believability it brought to the play’s confrontation, but there were some moments that felt a little indelicate to me. The musical interludes were mostly Deliverance-evoking banjo tunes, whereas it seems like these folks might be into some shitkickin’ country like Wheeler Walker Jr. or Colt Ford. And the set was set very close to the audience, so much so that I could have tripped the cast during a chase scene and the curtain call felt almost personal. Keep that in mind if you generally prefer the front row; house left might be a better choice. All in all, very minor moments in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable evening. As I heard a nearby audience member say at the end of the night, “I’m not gonna analyze it too much, it made me laugh.”
Truly, I don’t laugh out loud that much, but The Foreigner brought it out of me throughout the evening. My theatre companion was actually confused, it’s such a rarity. So I heartily recommend making a reservation and spending an evening down South, with some foreigners.
The Foreigner plays for two more weeks, through July 15th, at the Station Theatre in Urbana at 8 p.m. Weeknight tickets (Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday) are $10 while weekend (Friday, Saturday) are $15. See the company’s website for more information or to make a reservation, or call the ticket office at (217) 384-4000.
All images by Scott Wells