MIDVALE — “How does one acquire a personality?” a boring Brit, Charlie Baker, asks in the opening scene of The Sugar Factory Playhouse’s production of The Foreigner. Well, it’s a question that I don’t think was ever answered (unless the answer is to lie to everyone around you and just pretend to be a different person until they like you), but it was certainly explored. The result is hilarious, heartwarming, and in one very specific moment, even shocking.
The Foreigner is about Charlie Baker (Scott Andrew), a very shy and grieving British man, who is taken by his friend Froggy (Andrew Hansen) to a quiet Georgia bed and breakfast to relax for three days. Charlie dreads the idea of conversation and just wants to be left alone. So, naturally Froggy tells everyone at the inn that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t speak a word of English. This little lie changes everything. Charming and overwrought innkeeper Betty Meeks (Denise Gull) is lifted out of her doldrums by the prospect of getting to know a “real-live foreigner.” The beautiful Catherine Simms (Mara Lefler), who is about to enter into a very depressing marriage, finds that she is able to confide in the charming stranger who doesn’t know what she is saying. And slow country bumpkin Ellard (Brandon Green) begins to feel good about himself and earn the respect of others when he teaches English to Charlie. The cooky plan Froggy has come up with also makes it very easy for Charlie to listen to the evil plans of the play’s villains and perhaps even unravel their intentions.
Larry Shue‘s script is sharp-tongued, funny, and even a little dark (when you learn what the “bad guys” are really up to). And in Midvale, director Michelle Groves brings the script to life in a very honest way. The play remains genuine and earnest; Groves guided the actors towards honest characterization and feeling, rather than slapstick and mugging, which is a pitfall easily fallen into with so farcical a concept.
The first thing I noticed when entering the small theater was the set. The stage looked exactly how I would picture a rural bed and breakfast to be: a picturesque little cabin with a winding staircase, a front door cleverly placed with windows so you could see the walkway outside, and a trap door to the cellar that would come in handy. The decoration was plentiful; the stage was filled and felt lived in. It didn’t look like cheap props or poorly constructed set pieces.
The most impressive thing to behold, though, was the talent on stage. The actors performances make it worth the nominal cost of admittance. Very often, I think, in small community theater productions the show suffers from less than spectacular performances. But this was not the case in Midvale. I can honestly say there was not a weak link among this very tight ensemble. Scott Andrew as Charlie Bake was very comfortable to watch. Amongst his character’s angst and despair, Andrew had an easiness in his speech and interpretation that did not irk me as I watched a man possibly on the brink of a meltdown. I was also impressed by how Andrew was able to emote without vocalization. Because of Froggy’s plan, Andrew is silent for much of the play, yet I felt I could understand what he was thinking even when he went several scenes without being able to tell us.
Andrew Hansen sharply portrayed Froggy with very refreshing burst of energy against his rather angsty counterpart. Hansen made everyone in the room feel like he was their best friend as his charm and charisma oozed off the stage. He played a very fun character, and his bursts of laughter were absolutely genuine (he never seemed like he was just an actor pretending to be amused). Also commendable was Denise Gull as Betty Meeks. To be honest, her character is written in such a way that the character could be perceived as condescending if the actress does not convey the right feeling of fascination as she gets to know a real foreigner. Gull was able to beautifully avoid making Betty distasteful in this way. I must commend her, as she was able to balance a childlike sense of wonder and also an old world wisdom quite nicely.
When Mara Lefler’s character—Catherine Simms—first enters the show, she is in the middle of a heated argument and afterwards acts quite sarcastic. Because of this, I thought that the character was just going to be bitter. But Lefler proved me wrong as she slowly revealed to the audience the deep fear and vulnerability in Catherine. She really took her time unwrapping this element, and it made it very fun to watch. It took the whole show to really know her, and that certainly kept me from ever being bored with her performance. Another strong performance came from Brandon Green as Ellard. I think this could be a scary part to portray because in the politically correct world that we live in. Playing someone with a mental disability without respect could really get you a lot of backlash. But I think that Green got it right. His body language was very believable, especially in the way that he used his hands to emphasize the vulnerability of the character. I also appreciated how Green would also take his time with many of his lines, and so that I could see Ellard trying very hard to come up with the right answer. Green’s facial expressions alone could entertain a crowd. He had a lot of the punchlines in the show, and his comic timing is impeccable. Go see this show if only for this character.
The villains of this piece are played by Bob Bedore and Geoffrey Richards. Bedore really made me feel like his character, Reverend David, could fool his loved ones because he displayed a lot of charm when hiding his real intentions, but could also become unhinged and scary during his evil plotting. He made these two sides jive together, rather than play two different characters. Richards had a particular scene where he explodes with anger. I really enjoyed this scene very much, not only because the script took us from laugh out load humor to a very serious moment in a very exciting flash, but Geoffrey Richards shined in his moment. I found him to be quite scary. His face was bright red, and he really brought home the instability of his character.
This play is a comedy. The humor is intelligent and sometimes understated, and it also has moments of total silliness. The comedy had the audience laughing together very loudly. For example, there is a scene with Charlie and Ellard at the breakfast table mirroring each other’s actions. It’s a very simple idea, really, but they brought so much humor to it through their facial expressions, and also their full commitment to it. Had they held back and been merely funny actors, and not so fully their characters, I do not think the humor would have touched down so hard.
But The Foreigner also has a dark side, and the play takes us on a bit of a roller coaster ride towards the end. I do not want to reveal too much. But the shocking moment I mentioned stops your heart a bit. The cast and Groves handled this element with respect and never went over the top. Overall, the moment brings you out of the comedy briefly, served to really punctuate the humor, and to provide a suspenseful contrast.
There are a few things that could have made the evening better. One is a better program. It wasn’t very interesting to look at and it had very little information (no information about the theater company and no actor bios). I would like to have known more about the people entertaining me and about a theater that I think will go far. Also, the show intro felt a little sloppy to me. They mentioned the crowd size, and asked for help in spreading the word. It was an OK plea, but a more creative introduction would help the evening stick in people’s mind better and encourage the audience to tell their friends about the show. I think that the theater company should really present themselves with pride, as it is a show to be proud of. But these suggestions are minor and did not detract from the evening as a whole.
I think you should go see this show. You will have a good time whether you are a theater buff or not. It is far funnier and genuine than most of what is on TV these days, and you get to see it live! This is exactly what community theater should be: a very deep display of talent, a group of people who love the theater coming together to express that love on stage. And this group did it better than many others I have seen. They truly should be rewarded with a full audience.