Monday, November 12, 2012

Millbrook: "The Foreigner"

It seems that the Millbrook Community Players are always up to something -- an exhaustive and challenging five-production season, occasional scheduled "special" performances, participation in Alabama's Community Theatre Festival, and building a diverse company of community actors. Presently, they are showing Larry Shue's award winning 1984 dark farce-comedy, The Foreigner, a risky show that depicts some Southerners in uncomplimentary terms (even the good-guys are simple-minded) while lashing out at absurd excesses of these all-too-familiar bigoted stereotypes: a two-faced preacher and a redneck racist. -- Still, there are plenty of laughs to be gleaned from Shue's witty script.

Set in Betty Meeks' [Angie Mitchell] backwoods Georgia hunting lodge-cum-inn, Froggy LeSueur [John Chain], a British munitions expert, deposits his compatriot friend Charlie Baker [Roger Humber] there for some R&R so he can come to terms with his unfaithful wife's illness. A pathologically shy milquetoast, Charlie believes he has no personality and is boring to everyone, and does not want to be left alone with strangers, so Froggy invents a new identity for his friend -- a "foreigner" who can't understand or speak English -- and tells Betty it would be best to not even speak to him.

As to be expected, this plan is doomed. Betty is too kind-hearted to ignore her guest, and though she has been sworn to secrecy, can't resist trying to communicate with Charlie. Brother & sister -- a "simple" half-wit Ellard Simms [Corey Jackson] and spoiled self-centered and pregnant Catherine Simms [Catherina L. Curl] -- are due to inherit a fortune from their deceased father. Catherine is engaged to Rev. David Marshall Lee [Michael Snead -- replete with blond wig & polyester suit], a sleazy con-man in cahoots with local property inspector Owen Musser [John Collier] who is about to condemn Betty's property so he and the Reverend can buy it at almost no cost and open a "Christian hunting club" -- a not-too-subtle euphemism for the Ku Klux Klan -- on the premises.

Believing that Charlie can't understand them, each of the characters in turn divulges information in his presence so he becomes privy to all their devious or innocent talk. And therein lies the bulk of the humor. -- Betty maintains her naivete and trust in human nature; Catherine confesses her misgivings and dreams to Charlie's seemingly sympathetic ear; Owen and the preacher discuss their nasty plot in his presence, and Owen openly taunts this "foreigner", threatens him, and proclaims that all "foreigners" will soon be driven away.

But the plot hinges on the miraculous success of the innocent Ellard to teach English to Charlie, so that in a matter of two days, he can both communicate and thwart the bad guys. -- What starts slowly as a vocabulary lesson -- "fo-wurk = fork; aygz = eggs; gree-itz = grits" -- develops a charming connection between outcasts and gives both Ellard and Charlie more confidence.

Shue's concept is unlikely at best, and relies on the talents of his cast of characters to overcome a rather patronizing tone and keep the farcical situations moving. -- Director Fred Neighbors has a lot of veteran actors at his disposal, and while the dubious accents of the British characters are inconsistent, the rest of them are clear. Neighbors' Act I takes far too long to get through the lengthy exposition, and the pace throughout needs to pick up to sustain the farcical intent. Otherwise, the laughs come only intermittently in the two-and-a-half-hour playing time, despite the efforts of the capable cast.

Mr. Jackson, for example, is absolutely convincing as the simple-minded Ellard, and his gradual confidence is infectious. The teaching scenes between him and Mr. Humber are delightfully funny. And Mr. Humber's dead-pan behavior and his eventual realization that he actually "has a personality" brought out through his interactions with Ellard, Betty, and Catherine, and his confidence in defeating Rev. David and Owen, are controlled and credible.

There is a fine line between sinister portrayals and farcical depictions of the racist characters. Mr. Snead allows the laughs at the hypocritical preacher's expense to come easily; he is, after all, a very familiar target.

But the greater risk is left in Mr. Collier's capable hands. With close-cropped hair, a dark fitted t-shirt, and heavy boots, and with a commanding & threatening presence, he comes across as a very tainted and dangerous person -- and yet, he earns some of the most deserved laughs at the expense of his character's derision of Ellard and his racist stance against Charlie and all foreigners. -- With so much attention being paid today to Alabama's draconian immigration laws, and the call to treat all the disenfranchised with respect, the Millbrook Community Players are bringing these sensitive subjects to our attention.