VPR Backstage: ‘The Foreigner’

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(Host) “The Foreigner” by the late Larry Shue has been hailed as one of the most brilliant comedies of the late 20th century. VPR’s Susan Keese went backstage at the Dorset Theatre Festival production of the play that opened earlier this week.

(Keese) The setting for the Dorset production of The Foreigner is a comfortable but shabby fishing lodge in rural Georgia. Betty, the naive widow who runs the place, scrapes by – barely- through her gift for making lodgers feel at home.

Enter Charlie, a shy, tongue-tied Englishmen who considers himself hopelessly boring. As the play opens, an old Army buddy drops Charlie off at the lodge for a respite from his abusive wife. To spare Charlie the pain of conversation, the friend introduces him as a foreigner, who doesn’t speak a word of English.

The lie is a set-up for a comedy in which people’s lives are transformed by the presence of an exotic stranger.

(Morrison) “And now as he endows their lives with this richness they weren’t experiencing before, they endow him with almost superhuman qualities – an intelligence and brilliance he’s never had in his native land.”

(Keese) John Morrison directs the play. He considers “The Foreigner” one of the gems of American comedy. In this scene, over breakfast, Betty, played by Canadian actress Virginia Roncetti introduces Charlie to Ellard. Ellard is a kind-hearted boarder seen by most people as a dim bulb.

(Betty) “This here’s Charlie. Now he don’t understand English none. Not hardly even when it’s real loud. So don’t you go tryin to talk to him you understand?”
(Ellard) “He dudn’t?”
(Betty) “No, he’s from a foreign country. I don’t suppose you never seed a foreigner before.”
(Ellard) “No’m.”
(Betty) “Well foreigners, once you get to know em, they’s just regular… blokes.”
(Ellard) “Uh huh!”
(Betty) “You get used to all their strange ways and how they talk an all. I have. Everything all right Charlie? See now, he didn’t hear what I said, really but he sorta knew, cause we got a kind of extra circular communication goin, me and him.”
(Ellard) “Gol-lee.”
(Betty) “So you behave yourself y’hear. And don’t pay Charlie no mind.”
(Ellard) “No’m I won’t.”

(Keese) What follows is a hilarious pantomime in which Charlie mimics Ellard’s every move as he eats his breakfast. Suddenly Ellard gets the idea he can teach Charlie to speak English.

(Ellard) “Can… you… say Fo-wark?… Fo-wark?”
(Charlie) “Fah-“
(Ellard) “-work! Two parts: fah-work.”
(Charlie) “Fo-wark”
(Ellard) “Right! Put em together: fowark.”
(Ellard) “Good! That was great! Uh Uh eggs…”
(Charlie) “Aigs…”
(Ellard) “Yup! Real good.”

(Keese) Ellard isn’t the only character whose talents are brought out by Charlie’s hoax. At one point he rips his napkin ceremoniously, then flaps his elbows. Betty takes it as an appreciation of her cooking and a request for chicken, which she’s happy to prepare.

(Betty) “And, you what now? You want me to play the harmonica for you? Well now – how’d you know I used to play one of them things. That was 30 years ago.”

(Keese) One of the funniest things about the play is the wordless comedy actor Time Winters performs in the role of Charlie. Director John Morrison.

(Morrison) “A lot of it he has to communicate with other people doing expressions and pretending that he doesn’t understand everything that in fact he does understand. And a lot of the comedy develops from people talking in front of him and telling him things they think he doesn’t understand, which he does.”

(Keese) Charlie also becomes a silent confessor to Ellard’s sister Catharine, an heiress with a shifty fianc . Ultimately, he ultimately uses the knowledge he gains to foil a dastardly Ku Klux Klan plot against the lodge and its odd little family.

Despite the fact that it’s funny, director Morrison says the Foreigner is full of messages about xenophobia and ethnic stereotyping that are especially relevant in America today. But he also says it speaks to the human condition in a way that’s timeless.

(Morrison) “I think this play will have something to say to audiences this year, it would have last year, it will 100 years from now and it probably will 500 years from now if we’re all speaking English. And if we’re not someone wonderful will translate it into whatever language we’re speaking.”

(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Dorset.

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