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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Actors from left, Reid Henry, playing Ellard Simms; Susan Domer, playing Betty Meeks; and Emily Arata, playing Catherine Simms, console Jim Nelson, playing Charlie Baker, front center, in First Presbyterian Theatre's presentation of “The Foreigner,” which opens the season on Friday.

'Foreigner' to amuse with heart

Ready to get back into the theater?

Well, now you’re speaking First Presbyterian Theatre’s language.

The theater opens its season today with “The Foreigner,” a comedy about a painfully shy Englishman named Charlie Baker, who pretends not to understand English as a way to avoid the other guests at a rural fishing lodge in Georgia.

Despite the imaginary language barrier, the connections he makes with the interesting inhabitants help him discover the extrovert within.

Director Chris Murphy says the story is part humor, part heart.

“The thing I love about this play is that it really is the story of a nontraditional family,” Murphy says. “It’s a story about these people who should have absolutely nothing in common with one another, all coming together because of this central character and his affect on them as individuals.”

“I liken it to a sitcom like ‘Cheers,’ where you got this group of people who don’t really fit anywhere else or with anyone else, and although they are not blood relatives, they do make a family.”

In need of a getaway, Charlie is persuaded into traveling with his friend Staff Sgt. Froggy LeSeuer to Betty Meeks’ fishing lodge, a resort near an Army base where Froggy often works.

With Charlie fearing he is “the world’s dullest man,” Froggy suggests that he pretends to be a “foreigner” who speaks a language that sounds like incoherent babble to the cast.

Although, it’s based on a farcical concept, the play explores dark themes that offer lessons about tolerance and friendship.

Premiering off-Broadway in 1984, the comedy was part of writer Larry Shue’s short-lived success before his death in a 1985 plane crash.

Murphy says this is his first time working with the piece since his Fort Wayne theater debut 20 years ago at Arena Theater; he was 19 years old.

“I have sort of forgotten a lot of things, but in a good way, I am able to experience it in a totally different light. I can honestly say there is probably no similarity to the style and the staging between this and what we did 20 years ago, because I don’t remember a darn thing about those kind of details 20 years ago,” he says.

“As much as you like to think at 19 years old that you understand everything about the world, I definitely have a better appreciation for the emotional side of the play. It’s not about just going for the laugh, which as a 19-year-old actor, I guarantee you, all I was interested in was getting the laughs. Now I really do appreciate the heart of the piece.”

Longtime actors Robert Scrimm, Susan Domer and Jim Nelson return to the stage as well.

Nelson, who plays Charlie, says the role requires him to restrict those natural instincts to instantly react to the other actors.

“It’s very challenging not to show it in your face, or in your body language that you comprehend what they’re saying to you. You want to be able to show that Charlie understands it, but that he’s trying not to be too obvious about it,” he says.

“It’s very hard for me because when I’m actually listening to someone, I’m very reactive with my face, my gestures – I’m going to have to sit on my hands.”

Murphy says that throughout rereading the play, he saw the veteran actors within each role.

“I wasn’t sure that they would, because that’s not their sort of home theater – if Fort Wayne actors consider themselves to have home theaters. Fortunately for me, they all came out and it’s been wonderful,” he says.

Although, the play contains all the ingredients for a farce, Murphy believes it’s a good way to welcome audiences back when you can also add some substance.

“I think it’s wonderful when we can make people laugh and give something to an audience that just distracts them and gives them a good time, but it makes it twice as satisfying for a director, an actor and the audience, if along with that you can give them something that actually touches their emotions,” he says.