When an Englishman learns English: ‘The Foreigner’

BY KATIE HANSON | MARCH 12, 2009 7:27 AM

Visiting a foreign country can be exhilarating, terrifying, or spectacular. It can even be all three at once.

But rarely is a trip abroad as ridiculous as Charlie Baker’s experience in the Iowa City Community Theatre’s new play The Foreigner, which will open on the JohnsonCounty Fairgrounds at 7:30 p.m. Friday and will be performed over the next two weekends.

“The more I work on [the play], the more respect I have for it — it’s very well put together and very funny,” said director Gerry Roe. “It’s well on its way to becoming a classic American comedy.”

Set at a lodge in rural Georgia, the play centers on the Englishman Charlie and his friend, Froggy LeSeuer, a demolition expert from the British Army. When Froggy decides to bring his pathologically shy friend to Georgia, he hatches out a plan to keep Charlie comfortable: Pretending Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t understand a word of English.

Written by playwright Larry Shue, the production débuted in 1983 in Milwaukee and went on to a lengthy Off-Broadway run. The play enjoys a healthy exposure throughout the country — the Iowa City Community Theatre produced the play roughly a decade ago, and it also ran twice in eastern Iowa this summer.

“It’s always been one of my favorite shows,” said actor Scot Hughes, who plays Charlie, adding that he has wanted to have the role since he starred as Froggy years ago. “It has the theme of the little guy rising up to the occasion.”

In what may come as a surprise to the audience, the lodge guests fall for Charlie’s ruse completely, especially Ellard Simms, who takes to Charlie right away and becomes his impromptu English instructor. Amazingly, Charlie has a firm grasp of the language by the end of the day.

“Ellard isn’t dumb, he’s just slow,” said actor Lane Hanon about his character. “Nobody gives him a chance, but Charlie gives him hope, and he gives him a friend.”

Actor Erin Mills — whose character, Catherine Simms, is among those who Charlie tricks — said the scenario would rarely play out in real life.

“If people were sheltered enough and didn’t have experience [with other cultures], I see how they might be fooled and believe someone could pick up English in one day,” she said. “I’m sure there are people like that out there.”

While the plot may not be incredibly plausible, the actors say it doesn’t skimp on mirth.

“I laugh every night, and I’ve heard it so many times,” said actor Ken Van Egdon, who plays Froggy. “Every person is such a great character; the way the comedy is put together is so amusing.”
One of Charlie’s greatest challenges comes when the lodge guests ask him to tell a story in his “native language.”

“It’s the highlight of the play,” Van Egdon said. “He has to make it up on the spot. If you know the story, you’ll recognize it.”

Roe said one advantage of community theater, as opposed to high-school or college theater, is that it ensures the play’s characters will have actors the age they’re supposed to be.

This type of theater benefited Tim DeMuth, who said he hasn’t been onstage since high school, but he landed the role of the Rev. David Marshall Lee, a character who claims to be a man of God but harbors foul intentions for the lodge.

“I like the way he comes across,” Demuth said. “He has his own belief that he’s doing God’s will, even though he’s terribly wrong.”

No matter how corrupt or naïve their characters may be, all the actors said they’ve relished their time in each role. This may be most true for Debbie Spence, who is playing lodge owner Betty Meeks for the third time.

“I enjoy the character; she’s quite a gal,” she said. “Maybe I’ll do it a fourth time.”

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