'The Foreigner' at Laurel Mill: Down Home Fun

It seems that our area is in the midst of a Larry Shue revival, first with Spotlighters' The Nerd, and July's The Foreigner at Cockpit in Court.  Also throwing their hat into that ring is the Laurel Mill Playhouse, which is quickly becoming a personal favorite on the community theatre circuit.  Their production of The Foreigner, which has but two weekends left in its run, has all the flair and production value of first rate theatre, and performances that run the gamut between finely tuned to local flavor.  In this case, the local flavor/community theatre style of acting doesn't detract from the production at all – it adds to it.

Directed by Donald Neal as a straight shooting comedy rather than a lightweight farce like some theatres do, actually gives this play a dramatic edge, with some serious undertones.  The result, whether the late Mr. Shue intended it or not, is a wholly positive one.  You see this play deals with Southern American issues of the bigoted kind.  Leave it to Shue to fine raw humor in even that circumstance.  But by playing it not entirely for laughs (Neal purposely does not make the racist bums total buffoons) there is some actual dramatic tension and even a tinge of uneasiness in this otherwise light as a feather affair.  When you see Larry Shue's name above the title, you know you are getting an evening of laughs, many of them cheap, none of them too deep.  So this added edge comes as a very pleasant surprise.

If you haven't been to this little jewel of a theatre in the heart of historic Laurel, you really do need to make the trip.  The place is tiny, but in a quaint, not uncomfortable way, with plush seats all with a good view and air conditioning!  The stage itself is equally tiny, so it is nice to report that a full sized set, designed by Marvin Rogers and lit by Eric and Marie Sproul is on the stage, including a raised exit/porch with a trap door.  Rogers has paid close attention to the script, as he has created a homey, but dilapidated hunting lodge/b & b set that fits its Georgian and "seen better days" requirements to a "T." 

Neal's direction is by turns a slow Southern drawl of a pace and a fast paced farcical comedy.  He throws in some excellently timed, downright creepy moments, too.  Here's where you might keep the kids home – unless they have already been told of the threats of the KKK or unless you want a chance to open up that discussion.  There is also occasional (and entirely appropriate) swearing.  I give Mr. Neal and company much credit for being gutsy enough not to water down or shy away from this dicey topic in these decidedly PC times we live in.  Briefly, and so as not to divulge too much of the plot, Betty Meeks of deep Georgia owns a fishing/hunting lodge that has seen better days, and she is known to allow all types of non-Southerners to enjoy her facility.  Naturally, the "good ol' boys" don't like it and take it upon themselves to run her off and take the lodge as a new headquarters for the local KKK.  When one of her guests, Charlie Baker, a foreigner, learns of the plot, he, Miss Meeks and her friends must band together to fight the white-sheeted enemy.  Shue throws in some terrific plot twists and one heck of a high-action ending, making this a good time for all kinds of playgoers - and this group more than rises to the occasion.

Hugh Downey, in the small, but pivotal role of "Froggy" LeSeur, has the most difficult task in a play like this.  He serves as the deliverer of almost all the exposition and returns at the end to wrap things up.  He has boundless energy, and as a result his rapid-fire line delivery meant to get things going at a fast clip ends up extremely difficult to understand.  Add to that a rather convincing, if unintelligible, British accent and one misses nearly everything he says.  I was honestly surprised to find that he isn't really from overseas, but rather from Glen Burnie!  As the duplicitous Reverend David Marshall Lee, David M. Harter offers the least convincing portrayal of the evening.  His frequently off-pace, monotone delivery works when he plays the simple country preacher, but comes off as bad acting when he reveals the nasty side of his personality.  Since he must spend equal time playing the fool, Mr. Harter's performance is not without its charms, and actually serves to point up another performance.  That performance is by Jake English as Owen Musser, the meanest, slimiest slime ball I've seen in years.  To be perfectly frank, his acting is so dead on that I literally had to remind myself that he is playing a part.  At one point, he confides (to both the reverend and the audience) a deep, sinister hatred with such a sincere venom that the hair on the back of my neck stood up.  Congratulations on an amazing performance, Mr. English. 

The two ladies in the cast offer a real dichotomy of what it is to be a "Southern lady".  Maureen Rogers is Betty Meeks, aging, but spry owner of the lodge whose motto is clearly "please every guest at any expense".  She is absolutely hilarious when trying to communicate with her foreign guest, and even more a riot when she finds herself running around trying to keep everyone happy while her lodge is under siege.  While her accent slips, occasionally, Ms. Rogers has a firm grasp on old school Southern ways.  Erin Stauder as Catherine Sims is the opposite – she is the modern, sassy Southern Belle, complete with backbone and fire in her eyes, but always with the charm and grace of a lady – think of a combination of all four Designing Women rolled into one character.  She starts out abruptly, as the script calls for, so it takes a bit to warm up to her, but once you do, you are putty in her hands.

Interestingly, Jake English gets to spew his vicious talk mostly at his very own father, Steve English, who plays the titular foreigner.  Good acting must run in this family, because the elder Mr. English gives a riveting, sweet and quite funny performance, most of the time in a made up gibberish and amazing facial expressions.  He plays the role full out, but never with a hint of overacting.  This is a part that could be a disaster in the wrong hands, so easily could it slip into complete clownishness. Adept at physical comedy, Mr. English commands the stage as much with a broad gesture as with a soulful glance.  It is a young man in a supporting role, making his community theatre debut, who threatens to steal the show with an honest, but very funny take on a Southern half-wit names Ellard.  That actor's name is Zak Zeeks – remember it!  He manages to walk that fine line between comic buffoon and loveable idiot, making him funny, not laughed at, felt for, but not pitied.  Again, anyone with less skill in the roles played by either Mr. English or Mr. Zaks, could have seriously damaged the play.  What makes the whole thing funny is the not over-doing it.

It would be nice to see larger audiences at all of our local theatres, Laurel Mill included.  It is even nicer to say that, with The Foreigner, there is every reason for the community to support this theatre.


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