CEDAR CITY — It starts out as an innocent trip for Charlie Baker. In need of an escape from his troubles, Charlie’s friend persuades him to visit a bed and breakfast in rural Georgia. The vacation quickly takes on greater importance as Charlie helps the cabin’s inhabitants overcome their challenges and battle the Ku Klux Klan—all while pretending he doesn’t speak English. Though the story sounds serious, The Foreigner is a heartwarming comedy that combines situational and physical humor to create some carefree, escapist entertainment for Utah Shakespeare Festival audiences.
Michael Doherty stars as Charlie Baker in this production, and audience members who saw him in the Festival’s recent productions of Charlie’s Aunt, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or The Taming of the Shrew, will be pleased to hear that Doherty is at his comedic peak in The Foreigner. I’m not much of a fan of physical comedy, but Doherty’s facial expressions and almost contortionistic physicality can make even me laugh, especially in the early parts of the play when he tries to escape the notice of the cabin’s denizens. But Doherty isn’t a one-trick actor; he brings genuine pathos to the role of Charlie, and I found myself sympathizing with the character’s social anxiety because Doherty made it seem like a heavy cross for Charlie to bear.
Nearly as funny as Doherty is Colleen Baum as Betty Meeks, the mother figure for the younger denizens of the cabin. In her opening scene, Betty is worrying about her financial difficulties, and Baum conveyed anxiety in her mannerisms as she puttered around the stage, trying to keep herself busy with little stage business. But when her and Charlie’s mutual friend, Sergeant Froggy LeSeur (played by Chris Mixon), tells the provincial Betty that she would meet a foreigner, the change in body language changed abruptly to a charming display of excitement to meet someone from another country. (This same excitement about exotic locations and people is also probably why she’s friends with the British Froggy.) Baum then developed her character further as Betty built a believable relationship with the Charlie (whom she thinks cannot speak English), and much of Baum’s successful comedic work grows out of the language barrier that Betty thinks she must deal with.
Rob Riordan was an asset to this production of Ellard Simms, a young man with an unspecified intellectual disability. Riordan portrayed Ellard’s limitations with respect towards people with disabilities, and I never felt like Ellard was a caricature. Ellard’s trusting nature and the confusion he sometimes found himself in were realistic and did much to give this production some heart. It was also touching to watch Ellard grow as he found himself in the role of Charlie’s English teacher, and the glee on Riordan’s face as Ellard realized that he knew something that another person did not was something I never grew tired of watching.
Director Vincent J. Cardinal was at the helm of this production, and he effectively drew the humor out of Larry Shue‘s script. I admired how Cardinal was able to find the right balance between humor and heart, and I never felt the script’s message or the character development were being sacrificed for one more laugh. Cardinal also had a briskly moving show, and it seemed that the pacing never lagged, even in the slower, quieter scenes.
Jason Lajka designed the most intricate set of the Festival’s current productions, and the knickknacks and mounted animal heads perfectly created the look of a rural cabin. David Kay Mickelsen‘s costumes are subtle and realistic. Charlie’s three-piece tweed suit was a nice metaphor for his uptight, bland personality at the beginning of the play, while the T-shirts and suspenders for Owen Musser (played by Russ Benton) were perfect for a character who stands in for the white trash living in the area around Betty’s cabin. Indeed, for every character the clothes looked like a realistic choice of what each character would choose to buy and wear, instead of a costume.
In the end, there is much to commend about the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Foreigner. As a contrast to the other shows in this season, such as the heavy Othello or the moving Big River, this production is a refreshing opportunity to just laugh. And laugh I did—wholeheartedly. I encourage readers to do the same. Blosny blosny!
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