I was in high school when my dad took me to see “The Foreigner” at Ball State University. Although I didn’t remember much of the play more than 25 years later, I remembered the basic premise: an English visitor, Charlie Baker, comes to a rural American inn, to escape the stress of his life by pretending he doesn’t speak English. As a result, people feel free to unload their secrets to him. Rather than revealing his falsehood, he pretends to learn English at an extremely rapid rate, becoming nearly fluent in 36 hours.
Despite only seeing it once ever, it’s been one of my favorite plays. So when Patricia Rettig gave me and my wife complimentary tickets to Opening/Media Night for the 2010 season of the Beef and Boards Theatre, I jumped at the chance.
Beef and Boards, if you’re not familiar, is a dinner theatre. Basically, you eat dinner prepared by their gourmet staff until you’re content, and then sit back and enjoy the show from your table. (Don’t worry, dessert is served during intermission.) It’s like dinner in front of the TV, only without the commercials. And you don’t have to clean up after yourself.
Beef and Boards was part of a chain started in 1973, but slowly began to close down. The theatre in Indianapolis is the only one remaining, and it’s still going strong.
On the night we went, in keeping with the theme of the show, the menu included Asian stir fry vegetables, German sausage and sauerkraut, and English prime rib. Dessert for me was the Fudgy Wudgy chocolate cake, which our waitress and I discussed the embarrassment of both ordering and offering that particular dessert by name.
It was a surprise to see the characters again — they had aged so much in 25 years, no longer being played by college students — and I realized I didn’t remember as much of the story as I had originally thought. But the play was just as funny, and just as enjoyable.
Charlie Baker is an Englishman who is dragged to rural Georgia by his friend, Froggy LaSeur, an English soldier and army instructor, who is visiting a nearby U.S. Army base. Charlie is going through some tough times at home, and just wants to be left alone. So Froggy concocts a plan that Charlie is from another country and doesn’t speak a word of English. Betty, Catherine and her slow-witted brother Ellard, Catherine’s fiancee David, and the villain, Owen Musser, all learn to cope with Charlie’s quirks and issues, reacting to this foreigner with different results.
Even 28 years later, the play was thoroughly enjoyable. Jeff Stockberger as Charlie was hilarious, playing The Foreigner with all the believability of a real stranger in a strange land. Having worked with people from all over the world, I saw a lot of my friends in Stockberger’s performance. The confused look at a new custom, the non-understanding of a new word, it was great. And some of his made up foreign habits and traditions were brilliantly done.
Kate Braun as Betty Meeks was hysterical. Betty had never met a “real live foreigner” before, and so did what most people do when they meet someone who doesn’t speak English: shout.
“HERE’S YOUR TEA, CHAAARRRRLIE!!!!”
(Betty was by far my favorite.)
But as Charlie learns some of the secrets surrounding his new friends, he realizes the only way to save them is to “learn” English. He gets Ellard — who is considered slow by everyone else — to teach him. Ellard impresses everyone, especially himself, as Charlie learns to “talk real good,” mastering his new tongue in a day and a half.
Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Beef and Boards, and recommend it for anyone who enjoys theatre, especially musical theatre. The rest of the season will include Footloose, Hello Dolly, The Church Basement Ladies, and Camelot. You can see the entire season’s lineup at the Beef and Boards website.
“The Foreigner” will show every day except Monday until February 7th, with a matinee showing on Sunday and Wednesday.