Manhattan High staged a production of “The Foreigner” last week. Actually it is important to note that I saw the play on Friday night as there were almost two complete casts, and I saw the one with Trevor Bashaw as Ellard, Macy Lanceta as Catherine, Kathryn Mock as Froggy, and DaMerius Ford as Charlie Baker. This was the Wednesday and Friday cast. Betty was played by Hannah Atchison, Owen by Jacob Carlson, and David by Alex Tolar on all four nights.
I’m glad I saw the Friday cast because the casting was what was special about Director Linda Uthoff’s version of this dependable play. The 1984 American property is itself a sort of throw-back to the nineteen thirties. One can almost imagine it playing down Broadway from, say, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” There are two possible answers for “How do you like your eggs?” and this play gets laughs with both of them.
A humiliated Englishman named Charlie has a perfidious wife (she’s had twenty-three lovers) who is currently in the hospital. Her doctors have given her six months to live. The unhappy Charlie has been spirited away for a country retreat by his friend Lt. Froggy LeSeur, a French army officer who comes to Georgia in the U.S. every once in a while to teach an original sort of remote detonation to American troops. Froggy brings Charlie along on the USAF flight.
She intends to leave her chagrined buddy at the rural fishing lodge of hick Betty Meeks, figuring Charlie will benefit from a few days of bucolic relaxation. But Charlie insists his ego is so low he can not keep up his end of any conversation. “I never finish sentences…,” he says, before the soldier completes his thought. So Froggy tells Betty her new guest is a foreigner who speaks no English and who is embarrassed if anyone tries to engage him in conversation.
Betty has always wanted to meet a foreigner. She talks very loud and slow to him, and fancifully interprets whatever sham foreign language he mutters to placate her, at one point thinking he has asked for some harmonica music, for example.
The other guests take note of Charlie, too. Rev. David Lee and his occasional visitor, local building inspector and utter red-neck Owen, test Charlie before deciding he can’t understand their plan to force Betty to sell her property to them at a low rate, using the money of David’s fiancee Catherine and of her half-wit brother Ellard. Then the lodge will be made a replacement for the recently burned area headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan.
Because she doesn’t think he can understand, Catherine confides to Charlie the unhappy details of her love affair with David, Ellard develops a mute rapport with the foreigner during a rightly famous breakfast table scene (which ends with the boys holding their beverage glasses on top of their heads) and then begins teaching his new friend some English nouns. Charlie learns English very quickly. “Last night,” he tells us, “I learned to read.”
His presence is therapeutic for all of the guests. And even he begins to see that he could serve a further purpose in these people’s lives. But about then Owen and David take fright and the force of the Invisible Empire is focused on the poor little foreigner.
Ford is an African-American, which makes his character’s interaction with Klansmen different than it is in productions of the play in which Charlie is played by an Anglo-Saxon. And Froggy is usually played by a man. Mock’s casting may lead to questions about the officer’s romantic sympathy with Charlie and it makes problematic a brief sham flirtation with Betty, but it certainly made Froggy’s part in neutralizing the enemy less confrontational than it usually is in more conventional versions of the play.
The casting experiments went pretty well, I thought. The lighting and setting were strong for an MHS production. Sound problems soon resolved themselves. And so the audience had a chance to enjoy the casting twists on this proven comedy without distractions. We showed our approval with our laughter.