Though Marquette Theatre’s first show of the season is a Southern farce set in Georgia, the play has its roots deep in Wisconsin.
Playwright Larry Shue originally wrote and performed in the show for the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 1984 with huge success. The comedy has since become renowned with revivals across the country, but tonight “The Foreigner” returns to its hometown, premiering at Marquette’s Helfaer Theatre.
The play follows Charlie Baker, played by Chris O’Reilly, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. Baker is a humdrum Brit who proofreads for a science fiction magazine and is on a befuddled search for a personality. He finds himself left at a remote fishing lodge in rural Georgia, owned by the affable widow Betty Meeks, played by Katie Callahan, a junior in the College of Communication.
Upon arrival, it is discovered that Charlie has an intense phobia of conversing with strangers that results in verbal paralysis. In an attempt to alleviate the stress, Charlie’s friend Sgt. “Froggy” LeSueur (Ben Braun, junior in the College of Communication) decides to tell the unworldly Georgians that his friend is a non-English-speaking foreigner of nondescript nationality.
Each of the colorful characters react to the “foreigner” in revealing ways; some are warm with Southern hospitality while others greet the newcomer with nothing but a spit and a xenophobic rant. From there the hijinks ensue, creating a web of misconceptions, ironic interactions and big laughs along the way.
According to director Todd Denning, the character of Charlie takes on the role of the ever-evolving foreign character speaking broken English spiced with gibberish words made up of interjections like “Blazny! Blazny!”
“What I really love is how you see how an individual can change other people’s lives and how those connections can change that individual,” Denning said. “It’s great to see how the characters interact and the effect of the foreigner on all of their lives. (‘The Foreigner’) shows the masks we wear, and it’s a story of who’s going to expose who first.”
“(The play) is different than anything I’ve ever worked on,” said Lola Stanten, a sophomore in the College of Communication who plays the role of Catherine Simms in the show. “It’s really fast paced, and you have to be on your cues all the time. It’s also so hard when (the cast) is being funny not to laugh on stage, but I like that challenge. It’s kind of fun.”
But nailing the comedy was not the only challenge “The Foreigner” presented its seven principle actors. They were each asked to master a specific dialect for the show, aided by dialect coach Maureen Kilmurry. In total, there are five Southern characters, some of whom speak with an educated drall while others have a more downhome informality. The play also calls for two British accents and the inventive dialect created by the foreigner which becomes an amalgamation of the Eastern European, French and Spanish accents and at times even uses a bit of sci-fi and fantasy lingo.
“Our dialect coach was wonderful,” Callahan said. “We really broke down the Southern dialect. She made it really accessible for us.”
To prepare for Charlie’s British accent at the beginning of the show, Chris O’Reilly also credits watching movies for inspiration. “(The director) recommended that I watch John Cleese (of Monty Python), and Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) was a big one too.” O’Reilly said. “Charlie’s dialect is supposed to be very upper-class and educated. It’s very well-mannered.”
To switch into the character of the foreigner, O’Reilly studied another film, “Being There,” a classic comedy in which Peter Sellers plays a man who has acquired all his knowledge of speech from TV. “I watched that movie probably 15 times over the summer just studying his mannerisms and accents because I think my character is so much like his character in the film,” O’Reilly said.
The dueling accents that make up “The Foreigner” reveal much of what the play aims to communicate. The characters come from different backgrounds and must adjust to understand each other, but it’s not just the the way they speak that matters – it’s whether what they say is full of kindness or aggression and the effort they make to connect.
According to the cast, within the show’s big laughs lies a gooey center. “(‘The Foreigner’) is sweet because there really are moments of sentimentality even though it’s a farce,” said Jake Daggett, a sophomore in the College of Communication who plays the character Ellard Simms. ”You can see the realness of the characters through the absurdity.”
The sentiment was shared by the show’s director. “(‘The Foreigner’) is one of those shows where you have the humor with the heart,” Denning said. “You can laugh, but there are also moments that make you go ‘aw’.”
The show’s stage manager, Katie Doyle, a senior in the College of Communication, thinks the theatre department has taken on a different and exciting kind of show. She believes that the move will pay off and find big success by following one of the show’s essential lessons: “You have to be able to challenge yourself and be confident in trying new things that are scary because they will come out great in the end,” Doyle said.
With a cast that takes on dialects, plot turns and rapid-pace comedy, and with a set of characters who venture through the hazards of rural Georgia, “The Foreigner” promises to remind audiences that with big risks come big rewards.