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Laughing at the Klan

The Foreigner Directed by Glenn Kessler At the Agassiz Through November 16

By Amanda Schaffer

In a week in which the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan may well become governor of Louisiana, it's refreshing to enter the hilarious world of Larry Shue's The Foreigner. Presented by the Working Title Repertory Company, this is a play in which humor, quirkly characterizations and exceptional acting literally defeat the Klan.

The Foreigner is the story of a small Georgian community which is suddenly electrified by the arrival of a "foreigner." The audience meets Betty Meeks (Jeanne Simpson), proprietor of the fishing lodge in which the action takes place; the Reverend David Lee (Richard Claflin) and his fiance Catherine Simms (Bina Martin); Catherine's exuberant but uneducated brother, Ellard (Ian Lithgow); Ku Klux Klan member Owen Musser (Glenn Kessler); and military man Forggy Leseur (J.C Wolfgang Murad), who brings the painfully shy Charlie Baker (Tom Hughes) to Tilghman County and suggests that in order to avoid conversation he pretend to be a foreigner.

As woman of the lodge, Betty amuses the audience with her awe of foreign cultures. She marvels over a spoon "made in Taiwan," bows when serving Charlie tea and brags that she enjoys an "extra-circular communication" with him. Simpson masters both the joviality and the irony of her character--"If Charlie wants to put a glass on his head (when he eats) that's what they do in his country."

Hughes similarly brings out the ironies of the script, often without speaking. With active eyebrows and lips pursed to suppress laughter, he successfully reminds the audience of the world outside Tilghman County. His character's growth from introvert to boisterous raconteur is believable in spite of its rapidity.

Martin shines as the cooped up ex-debutante who tries to amuse herself by imagining names for the children of British royalty. Her startling first entrance--"I'm pregnant. You're not so sterile after all."--is appropriately tough. Yet Catherine never becomes a caricature. The audience trusts her compassion for Charlie and Ellard.

Lithgow avoids reducing Ellard to a Georgian stereotype. His wide chewy expressions and drawly English lessons--"Bah-urd" for board, "Faw-Werk" for fork--are hilarious. But Lithgow also convinces the audience of Ellard's softness and struggle to learn the language he teaches.

Claflin destroys the audience's saccharine vision of the good southern Reverend. He gives a delightfully sinister performance, as does Kessler.

Kessler's direction energizes the show. He times the characters' constant motion--entering, leaving, eveasdropping and climbing on the furniture--perfectly. And Ted Caplow's set, with its spoon display, cellar door and bowl of half eaten apples, creates a homey. insular environment.

While Shue's script alone--with its malapropisms and inventive character sketches--would delight any audience, it is greatly aided by Kessler's direction and the exceptional ensemble work of the Working Theater Repertory Company. Unlike today's Louisiana, in The Foreigner, the "sheet heads" don't stand a chance

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