Saturday evening’s performance of Larry Shue’s The Foreigner is the first time I can remember being part of an audience that actually screamed with laughter. Producing Artistic Director Juergen Tossman chose this play to wrap Bunbury Theatre’s 25th anniversary season because he credits the company’s 1997 production for putting Bunbury “on the map.” Over the last 15 years the company has successfully staged original works and classic plays, but few will have more appeal than this neat little story.
The Foreigner, which had its Off Broadway premiere in 1983, is one of a small body of published works left behind when Shue died two years later in an airplane crash at age 39. The ensuing decades have seen numerous regional productions of his tight situational comedy. The play’s success comes in part from Shue’s understanding of Off Broadway and Regional Theatre companies. With The Foreigner and his earlier work The Nerd (1981), Shue added to the repertoire two one-set gems that require relatively standard props and only 7 actors each.
With Saturday evening’s Bunbury Theatre production the stage was literally set as soon as I entered the theatre. Susan S. VanDyke’s beautiful set was a perfect representation of a timeless, Georgia fishing lodge. Into this world enter (stage left), Sgt. “Froggy” LeSeur and the play’s central character Charlie Baker played by Matt Orme and Ted Lesley, respectively dressed immaculately by costume designer Camille Bathurst. Before Orme and Lesley uttered their first lines Bathurst had already told us much about their characters. It may seem a bit much to go on about set and costumes, but anyone who has attempted to stage a play will understand the importance and difficulty behind these achievements. Where Bathurst came up with the insignia for the KKK costumes that drive the show’s climax I don’t think I want to know. Suffice to say that, along with a strong performance by Dan Bullington as Owen Musser, there was a tangible sense of danger that is usually missing. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. . .
(L to R) Neleigh Olson, Alice Chiles, Dan Bullington,
Ty Leitner, Ted Lesley and Matt Orme
Part of the satisfaction in Shue’s writing is his ability to neatly tie-up all the loose ends of his stories at the end of the play. This requires a lot of exposition at the beginning; Orme and Lesley spend the better part of a quarter-hour setting up the action. Once that task is accomplished “Froggy” makes a strategic withdrawl only to reappear later to move the story along and serve as the deus ex machina at the conclusion. The episodic nature of this functionary role is demanding and veteran character actor Orme makes it look easy.
The story centers on Lesley’s character, Charlie, a foreigner of unclear origins who brings a bit of wonder to innkeeper Betty Meeks’s troubled life. As Meeks, Alice Chiles is a pure delight. The entire company is blessed with a keen sense of comic timing, but Chiles characterization is remarkable in its naturalness. Over the years I have seen this show a number of times and even performed it once—and I can honestly say I have never experienced a stronger actor in the title role. As Charlie, Lesley skirts mawkish caricature and gives a sensitive, layered character able to unfold organically as the story progresses.
The Foreigner runs through June 26 at Bunbury Theatre, located on the third floor of the Henry Clay Building at Third and Chestnut Streets. For tickets and more information go to www.BunburyTheatre.Org or call 502.585.5306.