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Camelot's 'Foreigner' engaging and well timed

Larry Shue’s 1983 play “The Foreigner,” now at Camelot Theatre in Talent, is a touching and thought-provoking comedy.

Though some might classify the play as a substantive sit-com, the story is skillfully woven, delivering timely commentary on today’s political landscape. The play could have been reduced to a farce, but under the direction of Roy Von Rains, the actors have created unique characters that grow as the story develops. The physical action builds to an unexpected climax as at least one character takes on mythic proportions.

On a dark and stormy night in rural Georgia, at a small dilapidated fishing lodge near an army base, explosives expert Sgt. Froggy LeSueur (John Richardson) drops off an old friend, Charlie Baker (Erny Rosales), for “a forest retreat.”

Tragically depressed and shattered by lack of self-esteem, Charlie is petrified by the thought of idle conversation. Through unexpected events, he ends up posing as a “foreigner,” a non-English speaker.

The owner of the fishing lodge is Betty Meeks. Weary from a lifetime of hardship, Betty is still enchanted by what is new and different. Sweet and nurturing, she thoughtfully cares for each of her guests. Shirley Patton is exquisite as Betty, who reveals herself on various occasions as surprisingly resourceful and energetic. Hankering for exposure to different cultures, she takes to Charlie. Considering him picturesque, she welcomes him in, and they develop what she calls “extra-circular communication.”

Much of the comedy surrounds how we relate to people of a different language and culture. The play is a witty commentary on the barriers of language and efficacy of learning.

How do we relate to someone who doesn’t speak our language? Do we assume they’re partially deaf and speak too loudly to them? When they look at us quizzically, do we explain things with way too many words? Are we condescending, as Catherine was at first to Charlie: “Do your people bend in the middle? Have a seat!” Or do you use the person as sounding board to reveal your innermost secrets, thinking that he won’t understand a word?

What do we do about idioms? To the question, “How do you like your eggs?” is the answer, “fried” or “fine?”

Catherine Simms, played by Beth Boulay, is a young heiress in a difficult circumstance who regards herself as one of those people who are “just a waste of food.” She is going crazy with no one to talk to. Boulay handles herself with sincerity and composure, definitely plausible as an ex-debutante.

Catherine’s brother, Ellard (Zag Wentworth), is sweet, adorable and slightly developmentally disabled. He is an innocent young man whom one can’t help but love. Ellard first engages Charlie with elaborate body language, then they begin “working on words.” As Ellard teaches Charlie the rudiments of English, he finds that “to teach is to learn,” and they mutually develop competence and confidence.

Catherine’s fiance, the Rev. David Marshal Lee, is perfectly played by Dan Hanvey. At first he seems to be the ideal match for Catherine, but bit by bit, slimy elements appear in his character. Motivated by power and greed, he is involved in a plot that shows he is heartless.

The Reverend’s sidekick, Owen, robustly played by Jeff Mercer, is a menacing, crusty redneck who likes dynamite (not just for fishing). Owen’s daily wear consists of a torn T-shirt encrusted with sweat, dirt and spittle. He is a misogynistic, uneducated, angry young man who could well belong to a domestic terror group. Upon meeting Charlie, his comment was, “The last time I saw a foreigner, he was wiggling at the end of my bayonet.”

Catherine warns Charlie, “You’re not 100 percent American white Christian, you’re liable to find yourself some fine morning flopping around in some Safeway dumpster, minus a few things.”

The dark and stormy night leads to a day for surprises. The play is a true tour de force for Rosales as Charlie, who evolves from a sad solitary figure to acquire some superhuman qualities: Through hilarious mime, chants and dance, he creates a stupendous spectacle, all wrapped within a sweet, sympathetic, relatable character.

The set, designed by Sunshine Klein, creates the perfect psychological interior for the proceedings: a dusty, ramshackle lobby where repair and improvements consist of plywood, decorative contact paper and duct tape.

Skillfully directed by Roy Von Rains, the play maintains high energy, with delightful chemistry between the well drawn characters. The ensemble cast valiantly skitters on the edge of absolute sincerity and extreme physical comedy to truly engage the audience.

“The Foreigner” plays through May 21. For more information, call the box office at 541-535-5250 or see camelottheatre.org.

— Evalyn Hansen is a freelance writer based in Ashland. Email her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com and read her blog at ashlandtheater.wordpress.com. 

From left, Beth Boulay, Erny Rosales and Shirley Patton star in 'The Foreigner,' running at Camelot through May 21. [Steve Sutfin photo]