Amish Acres welcomes ‘The Foreigner'

THEATER By ANDREW S. HUGHES
South Bend Tribune Staff Writer

Amish Acres' Round Barn Theatre built its reputation as a repertory musical theater company, but a year ago, it staged Neil Simon's “Barefoot in the Park.”

That experiment in non-musical theater continues Wednesday with the opening of Larry Shue's “The Foreigner.”

Set at a fishing lodge in Georgia, “The Foreigner” revolves around Charlie Baker, a man so shy that his friend and companion at the lodge, English Staff Sgt. Froggy LeSueur, claims Charlie doesn't understand any English to spare him from interacting with the other people at the lodge.

The staff and guests, of course, begin to confide their secrets and plans — a reluctant engagement, an attempt to condemn the property and take it over to use it for a Klu Klux Klan meeting place, among others — to Charlie, who replies with the only English they think he knows: “Thank you.”

“The whole idea that the play turns around a guy who's from somewhere else — they don't know where — and that he can't speak English,” director David Craven says about what intrigued him about the play's premise. “Throughout the course of the play he changes the life of everyone in the play, as well as his own. The effect of the unknown can be intriguing.”

Craven also directed Amish Acres' “Barefoot in the Park” in 2009 and this season's “Plain and Fancy.”

“(Executive producer Richard Pletcher) said the reason he picked the play was that he didn't remember much of the plot but he remembered laughing through the whole thing,” he says about the choice to produce “The Foreigner.” “He found it really funny. I think that's a great statement on the play.”

Premiered at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 1983 and off-Broadway in 1984, “The Foreigner” won two Obie Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards for its New York run.

“There is shtick in it, but the characters are approaching things with a sense of naturalism, so the situation makes it funnier than their style of approach to it,” Craven says about Shue's type of comedy in the play. “It's not a farce in the sense of a British farce where everything is fast. It's more of a situation comedy, what we're used to from ‘Seinfeld.'

” Part of that situation includes Ellard Simms, the brother of heiress and Southern belle Catherine Simms, who's engaged to the Rev. David Lee, one of the men plotting to take over the lodge.

Ellard, however, is slow, although many descriptions of the play compare him to the character of Forrest Gump, or worse.

“I've heard of Ellard being treated as less than intelligent or almost retarded, which is a characterization I didn't find necessary or laid out in the script,” Craven says. “He is slow … He's slower or has attention deficit. He's a C student instead of an A student.”

Instead, Craven says, he believes Ellard simply needed Charlie to come along and take him seriously without judging him.

“He confides in Charlie and blossoms because there are no expectations,” the director says. “There are those who expect more, and I think that's what happens with Ellard. He's treated as dumb and believes himself dumb, but he meets Charlie, his sister believes in him to a point, and they have their eyes opened. He just needed someone to believe in him.”

The same, Craven says, goes for Charlie, who gets that opportunity through the confidences he receives and the courage he develops to eventually speak because of what he knows.

“On the one hand, a lot of times we tell people things and we don't want a response,” he says. “We just want to say them out loud. We want them to sit and listen to us. And when people give you the wrong response, you say, ‘Why didn't you say nothing?' He's the perfect person because they can say everything they've ever wanted to and more, and the response they get is, ‘Thank you.' ”

Throughout the rehearsal process, Craven says, he and Luke Bridges, who plays Charlie, have emphasized how the process changes Charlie more than any other character.

“First and foremost, we want people to laugh, but if I could say there's a deeper meaning to the play, I would say it's that people who are different from you aren't bad, and with Ellard, who is a little slower, I would say that lifting your expectation of yourself is good,” Craven says. “Charlie is a larger form of the story of Ellard because when he has to speak, he blossoms. … That's the great thing about the show: When you lift the expectations of somebody, they become so much more than they would have been.”

Onstage Amish Acres presents Larry Shue's “The Foreigner” Wednesday through Nov. 7 at the Round Barn Theatre, 1600 W. Market St., Nappanee. For more information, showtimes and ticket prices, call 800-800-4942, ext. 2, or visit the website amishacres.com.