November 16, 2017
Like a bad dream or an unfortunate high school nickname, the same societal issues seem to haunt our nation year after year.
“The Foreigner”— which just ended its two-week run in the Mayer Theater, was written in the 1980s. Even so, the “strong social statements about immigrants, masculinity, racism, power, privilege and a sense of belonging,” pointed out in the plot by director Aldo Billingslea, strike a chord with the public today.
Set in Betty Meek’s fishing lodge resort (more of a small guest house), “The Foreigner” tells the story of a British sci-fi proofreader named Charlie Baker, who—through an increasingly silly series of attempts to gain a personality—gets in over his head with the Ku Klux Klan.
Charlie, whose wife, Mary, is both sick and wildly disloyal, is brought to Georgia by his friend Staff Sergeant Froggy LeSueur (played by senior William Gunn). Froggy does demolition instruction for the local army base.
Charlie has a paralyzing fear of conversation, and he has convinced himself he lacks a personality. These problems are both solved by Froggy, who tells Betty Meeks that Charlie is a foreigner from a far away country and speaks no English. Charlie soon befriends the whole crew at Betty’s home under this guise.
He also finds some enemies, including Owen Musser (played by first-year Patrick Ocock), a local resident and ardent dissident to interactions between Americans and foreigners and Reverend David Marshall Lee, the local preacher (played by junior Derek Sikkema).
Junior Christian Wilburn, who plays Charlie, gives a fantastic performance. One of the best scenes of the whole show was Charlie’s retelling of a story from his “home country,” acted out as a monologue from Wilburn, who managed to make an entire Sunday audience shake with laughter without using a single English word. It speaks to the talent of an actor when they can enrapture a room with only gesture and gibberish.
The other characters’ reactions to Charlie are what truly drives the plot of the show.
Betty, played in a wonderfully charming manner by junior Madeline White, finds a source of entertainment and an opportunity to see the world outside her small town in Tilghman County, Georgia. Catherine Simms (played by Riley Vaske), is the holder of her family’s significant wealth soon-to-be preacher’s wife. Charlie acts as a friend, confidant and potential lover to Betty. Finally, Catherine’s younger brother, named Ellard Simms (played by senior Thomas Ariniello) discovers a friend in Charlie by teaching him the basics of English.
Wilburn captures the gentleness of Charlie’s character, which stands in stark contrast to the aggressive, hate-fueled masculinity of Owen, and the less combative but still controlling and racist masculine behavior of the Reverend.
In the tense but humorous climax, Charlie uses the KKK’s fear of his foreignness to escape certain death. In another gibberish monologue, using the basic English words he pretended to learn from Ellard, Charlie scares the Klan off with magic tricks and a bit of pretend possession.
Throughout the ordeal, Charlie finds that he didn’t really need to go searching for a personality when people “just seem to hand it to [him] piece by piece as they walk into the room.”
Starting with his blank slate personality, Charlie not only develops a personality but learns to love who he has become in his new environment where he is treated as someone special.
Because he doesn’t talk, the people around Charlie begin to project personality traits on him. He takes on those personality traits, at least at first, to please those around him. After performing them for so long in front of the residents of the lodge, the personality others have given Charlie becomes his own.
The show’s examination of foreigners as both outsiders (ex: Charlie integrating as a non-English speaker) and near-natives (ex: Charlie having a perfectly good grasp of the English language) apply well to the current immigration debate.
The play forces the audience to take the perspective of the foreigner, leading to empathetic thoughts on immigrants as a whole. After all, as Froggy says about Charlie (and foreigners in general), “E’s just a bloke, yer know.”
Contact Ethan Beberness at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.