On Thursday night at the Surrey Arts Centre, I got to see Pacific Theatre‘s production of The Foreigner presented by the Arts Club on Tour. I had been meaning to see this at PT when it first came out in Vancouver but didn’t get around to it, so was very delighted to hear I could have another opportunity—and with all the same original cast!
It’s been a while since I’ve taken in some live theatre and it was wonderful. I had pretty high expectations as this was the play in which John Voth, who plays Charlie, won a Jessie award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Lead Role.
The quick synopsis of the play from PT’s website reads:
Charlie is visiting from England, painfully shy and very much in need of rest. His friend has the perfect solution – he leaves him at a rural fishing lodge, telling his hosts that Charlie is from an exotic foreign land and speaks no English. All is well until “the foreigner” overhears more than he should.
It was funny; it was serious; it was silly; it was sinister.
When Charlie gets dropped off at a rural fishing lodge in Georgia by his friend Froggy, he appears uptight and concerned with his ailing yet cheating wife. I learned a great word from this review of the play: “milquetoast.” It means “a person who is tired or submissive.” Yes, this describes Charlie perfectly. He sits at the kitchen table in the first scene, looking like Eeyore, and asks Froggy, “How does one acquire personality? What must it be like to tell a funny story? To arouse laughter? Anger? Respect? To be thought wise?”
Very prescient question. Froggy tells Betty, the garrulous, doting woman who runs the lodge, that Charlie is a non English-speaking foreigner who wants some peace and quiet. She is fascinated by the idea of a foreigner and treats him like her pet. Catherine and her fiancé, the reverend David, are staying at the lodge too, as well as Catherine’s slow but likeable brother Ellard. The play largely develops from each character’s interaction with the foreigner.
The audience gradually sees Charlie acquire personality as he acts out the roles the various guests at the lodge attribute to him: Catherine’s confessor, Ellard’s pupil, Betty’s pet skunk. Catherine is told Charlie doesn’t speak English so she tells him all her secrets, including how she feels about becoming a preacher’s wife. Ellard gets a boost of confidence (and so does everyone else) by teaching Charlie English in a record amount of time. Betty has someone she gets to completely spoil, true to the profile of a typical southern woman.
What impressed me so much about the play was the script, written by Larry Shue. It was such an unusual and refreshing plot, where a lot of the words are gibberish (when Charlie has to speak in his “native” tongue at the request of his new friends). I heard some other audience members saying as they walked out of the theatre, “I wonder if the actors say the same words each time, or if the gibberish is different in each performance.” I was wondering the same thing.
Regardless, it was extremely amusing and John Voth was utterly in his element, acting the meek and mild Charlie at the beginning, and then erupting into the life of the party with his unconventional ways of storytelling. The sinister parts come into play with the character of David, (Catherine’s fiancé) who has his own dirty secret and who’s in cahoots with Owen, a slimeball involved with the KKK.
But it all works up to a rewarding climax where the bad guys are given their comeuppance and the good guys succeed and grow closer, so much closer that the hint of a relationship between Charlie and Catherine is implied. What surprised me (and somewhat disappointed me) is that Charlie never reveals his secret in the end. He still has everyone fooled that he’s a foreigner, and I went away asking, “Is this a good thing or not?” On one hand, yes—play-acting has allowed him to become someone he couldn’t have been otherwise, perhaps even more himself. But on the other hand, the moral issue remains, “But he’s still lying to all of them!” David turns out to be a big scumbag and liar at the end, but how different is Charlie from this if he also doesn’t tell Catherine the truth?
Maybe other theatre-goers don’t analyze out the aftermath to the same extent I do, but I was curious about the note it ends on. Charlie very much embodies this quote by Oscar Wilde:
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.