16 August 2003: Shue, The Foreigner

Pioneer Valley Summer Theatre, performing at the Williston Northampton School, Easthampton, Massachusetts. Direted by David Nields. Closing night of the last play in the summer series.

The program explains that the playwright, Larry Shue, was killed in a plane crash in 1985 at age thirty-nine. The play in certain ways bears out the dated quality of its origins, but it has a life and a pulse. Supported by a first-rate comic actor in the title role, as in this production, it is a very funny play and at the same time a paean — or is it simply a comment? — to a society, still very much with us, torn between its lip service to the desirability of a diverse society and its gut instinct for ostracizing the “foreigner.”

In any case, this crisply though at times awkwardly (for its straight lines of characters) directed play becomes progressively funnier as the evening moves on, despite its rather thin plot involving a minister, David Marshall Lee, whose secret desire is to found a Christian white nation centered on the Ku Klux Klan (of which he is an unacknowledged member), and despite its very unlikely premise: A British explosives expert is imported once a year to an exceedingly small town near an army post (can Shue have Fort Benning in mind?) to teach soldiers how to blow up mountains; this year he happens to bring along a nonentity of a man, Charlie Baker, a proof-reader by profession, a colorless figure whose wife, now it seems terminally ill in the hospital, has cheated on him some twenty-three times out of sheer boredom. Charlie has been brought along by the explosives expert, Sgt. “Froggie” LeSuere (why he has a French name is never explained and has no bearing on the play), for a “rest” so that he can be left behind in Betty Meeks’s very rural lodge in the wilds of Tihlman County, Georgia, close to the Army post but distant from all other forms of life. Also part of the premise is the need of Charlie, a morbidly shy fellow, not to have to engage in conversations with other persons with whom he is sure to have nothing in common. So Sgt. “Froggie” does Charlie the doubtful favor of telling Betty that Charlie speaks no English. And so, when the small-time heiress Catherine Simms reveals to the Reverend Lee, to whom she is engaged to be married, that she is pregnant, the revelation is made with Charlie an unrealized presence in the living room of the lodge. In order to protect himself when Catherine suddenly discovers his presence, he suddenly finds he has to act out his “foreigner” status before Catherine, Betty, the Reverend, and Catherine’s somewhat impaired younger brother Ellard. He adopts an inane, toothful grin as his protection, along with the utterance of a single English phrase, “Thank you,” used on any and every occasion.

Of course, as the play proceeds, Charlie is more and more sorely tried — but not found wanting. This is the central comic device of the play, and Charlie wins our hearts through his skillful and increasingly ingenious, even brilliant, responses to critical situations that pressure him to give himself away but to which he responds with a winning ingenuity.

And so the play has a kind of Molièresque quality to it. The strength of Shue as a dramatist is his inventive way of stretching the play out beyond the point where anyone except Charlie might have blown his cover. We know that he will eventually be discovered, but by the time that happens — in the gentlest of ways — the Reverend and his fellow “sheet heads” (get it?) have been exposed for the blatant racists they are and, much more important, Charlie has acquired an authentic human personality and has begun to fall in love with Catherine and she with him. The fact of her pregnancy with the child of the most evil of the racists, the arch-hypocrite Reverend Lee, is minimized almost to the point of invisibility — one of the several shortcomings of Shue’s flawed plot, along with its great implausibility.

In fact the implausibility of the play makes it read a lot like farce, a genre notable for situations that have been invented transparently to create opportun­ities for horseplay and other physical obstacles designed to create a hostile world in which the hero is sure to founder — and to make us laugh heartlessly when he does so. But the farcical tone is deliberately set at odds, it seems, by Shue in order to develop what is more centrally a quality of character in which, implausible as it may seem, the central character is given a golden opportunity to become, at last, someone — namely, himself. He had no idea he was capable of what the absurd, farcical action shows him at last to be capable of.

There are some fine farcical scenes, including an eating scene which is simultaneously a language instruction scene in which Ellard (another character who comes into his own in the course of the play) teaches Charlie the English names of common objects, in a deep Georgia accent —fowark (= fork), glayess (= glass), and so on — names that Charlie, an excellent mimic, dutifully pronounces in the Georg­ian manner, even while he is trying to eat from a huge bowl of indigestible “gree-its” (grits).

How much rehearsal the actors had, I have no idea — perhaps not much, since PVST has been doing a new play for five performances each week since June — but the acting is really quite good, and the casting excellent. Christopher Shanahan is truly wonderful as the Foreigner who triumphs over his own limitations, and Raymond Surprenant Jr., as the redneck Owen Musser, with an accent thick enough to cut with a Bowie knife (and indeed so thick that I, a veteran of Georgia culture who spent over six years, from the fifth grade on, growing up in Atlanta, had trouble understanding him), was all too authentic as a local worker who deeply distrusts anyone not indigenous — and who proves to be the whatever-he-is-called green robed Imam (I made that up) of the Klan who is defeated by the gibberish implications of Charlie, standing on the table and pretending to call on the terrible spirits of his native wherever-it-is. For good measure, Froggie arrives in time to blow up Owen’s van and, not so incidentally, to deliver a telegram sent from Charlie’s wife, who has miraculously recovered and run away with a hospital medic, leaving Charlie free to “stay a while longer” and improve the prospects with Catherine, who will not marry the money-grubbing Reverend Lee after all. By this time we are so used to absurdities and improbabilities that two or three more don’t matter.

There was a standing ovation for Shanahan, and perhaps for the PVST as well, which seems to have done very well in their first attempt at self-resurrection after losing their long-standing foothold at Mount Holyoke College. I saw only two of their plays, the first — Private Lives — and this last. I’ll have to try to see more of them next summer. (See the full list enclosed in the program.)


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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