CEDAR CITY — When I told friends that I was going down to Cedar City to see some plays at a festival, they all assumed I was going to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. I confess that I was not really aware of the fact that there are several festivals that happen in this small town, including the Neil Simon Festival (NSF), which is running until August 8th. But after a visit to the NSF, I now encourage theatregoers that plan to visit Cedar City to make time to learn what the Neil Simon Festival has to offer.
The first show I was able to witness was a production called The Foreigner, an interesting comedy written by Larry Shue that has some surprisingly deep themes regarding racism, acceptance, and understanding. The story revolves around a shy Englishman, Charlie, who is going to be staying at a small bed and breakfast type lodge in Georgia, and he feels uncomfortable engaging in conversation. Due to issues back home, Charlie wants to be able to have a few days where he does not have to speak to anyone. His friend who has brought him to the lodge, Sergeant Froggy LeSuer, decides to tell the lodge owner and guests that Charlie is from an exotic foreign land and does not speak English. The action that results revolves around how people react to a foreigner and the things Charlie can learn when people do not think he understands.
One thing I really enjoyed about this production was that the company hold a pre-performance chat in the lobby, where audience members can ask questions and learn a bit more about the play and why the company made the choices they did. It was fascinating to learn of the theatrical background of director Clarence Gilyard, and the reasons he chose to be a part of this production. His passion of understanding the challenges of others was definitely evident in the course of this play.
The beginning of the show was slow, and it took me at least 15 minutes to feel like the action was picking up enough for the show to be interesting. After the first 15 minutes, I found I was wrong to be apprehensive, for the rest of the show amply made up for the initial drag. Most of this was due to the acting capabilities of two of the major players, Chrystine Potter Hyatt as Betty Meeks (the owner of the lodge) and Henry Ballesteros as the “foreigner,” Charlie Baker. Hyatt was amazingly convincible in her role as a woman who had done the same thing every day for 30 years: run a small place for people to stay, making breakfast every morning, and only knowing about adventures through the stories of the people she meets. She seemed to fill the role of everyone’s cheerful grandmother so well that I found myself wishing I could get up on stage and eat some of the fried chicken she set on the table.
As for Ballesteros, who is saddled with playing a role that requires convincing the other characters in the show that he did not understand him while also convincing the audience that he did really comprehend them is tricky. I found myself completely impressed by the fact that Ballesteros was able to command his facial expressions in such a way that both messages were loud, clear, and not conflicting. Some of the strongest moments in the play involved Ballesteros using his talents to further the story while spouting unintelligible dialog, such as pretending to tell stories in his “native tongue,” and working on “learning English” with the charming yet misunderstood Ellard Simms, played by Keaton Johns. The interaction as Johns portrays a young boy once thought “stupid” transforming into a smart “English teacher” is done so well during the moment that Johns gets Charlie to say “remarkable” was both humorous and inspiring. All the other cast seemed to strongly compliment the portrayal of the story, and each performance added depth and interest to the story.
What I took away from this play was articulated in one of Charlie’s lines, where he is realizing that the small cast of characters is working together to understand one another without the convenience of a common language. He states, “All of us are making each other complete and alive.” One of the greatest things that good theatre can do is connect people through laughter, tears, and critical thinking, all of which were executed seamlessly by the cast and crew of the Foreigner. Ellard works to “teach” Charlie new words, while the whole cast helps the audience to see that communication is more than just words. The Foreigner, as Charlie would say, is indeed “remarkable.”