Capsule Stage Reviews: The Foreigner, King Hedley II, Made in America, Next to Normal

The Foreigner Larry Shue's sweet backwoods comedy (1983), a staple of regional theaters, receives an equally sweet rendition at Company OnStage. Shy, profoundly boring Englishman Charlie (David James Barron), a dear friend of U.K. staff sergeant Froggy (Mark S. Jones), is brought by his friend to a fishing lodge owned by Betty (Jeanette Sebesta) in rural Georgia for much-needed R&R to cheer him up after learning of his wife's cancer and, more shocking, her constant infidelities — 23 by her own count. Charlie has an abnormal fear of talking to anyone about anything, so Froggy invents a story that he can't speak English and doesn't understand a word anyone says. Living at the lodge are Catherine (Elyse Rachal), fiancée to abnormally patient pastor David (James Reed), and her "slow" brother Ellard (Geoffrey Geiger), whom everybody treats like the village idiot. The villain of the piece is racist bigot Owen (John Wind), who wants nothing more than to turn the lodge into a mega-base for his beloved KKK. One by one, the locals confide in this silent confessor, bringing out the best in themselves, while the not-so-nice townsfolk blab away in front of him since they believe he can't understand what they're saying. Barron finds just the right note of bemused silliness for Charlie, who "comes out" in a wonderfully idiotic fairy tale that he invents to amuse Betty and friends. Meanwhile, Wind's scarily effective performance as the prototypical redneck adds a whole other layer of menace to Shue's featherweight play. While we laugh, he makes us catch our breath. Through June 9. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

King Hedley II Of all contemporary American playwrights, Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner August Wilson, who died in 2005, is perhaps the most old-fashioned. Which is a splendid thing. He loves the well-constructed play; he loves words, bejeweling his plays with the poetry of American speech; he loves his characters, who are vividly alive and emotionally direct. He fills his plays with religious fervor, a throwback to ancient ancestors' abiding influence, for good and ill. His epic work, the ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle," which documents a century of black American experience, is a monumental artistic achievement. He illuminates the black experience, but shows all of us the world. You don't have to know the former plays to understand what's happening here, the characters will tell you their history, a defining Wilson trait. King (Benjamin Cain), fresh from the slammer, has returned to his mother's house to start life afresh, but gets fast money by selling hot refrigerators with homeboy Mister (Broderick "Brod J" Jones). Mom Ruby (Bebe Wilson), who gave up King to her sister to raise so she could pursue her singing career, has a prickly relationship with him, as does his wife Tonya (Rachel Hemphill Dickson), the prototypical strong, independent Wilson female. Next door in the dilapidated neighborhood (realized in scenic designer James V. Thomas's evocatively decayed houses of faux-brick paper siding) lives Stool Pigeon (Wayne DeHart), Wilson's Jeremiah figure, prophet of God's wrath and all-knowingness. "God's a mean mother-fucker," he preaches with profane Biblical profundity. Ruby's former lover Elmore (Wilbert Williams) glides back into her life, holding a secret about Hedley that has dire consequences for everyone. Melodramatic and raw, King Hedley II is the most operatic of his cycle plays. Each character gets a center-stage aria. Dickson takes the breath right out of us with Tonya's description of a mother's pain from a dead child. Ruby's story of her hair turning grey in front of her eyes is masterfully related by Ms. Wilson, as are any of DeHart's fervid outbursts. Replete with pain, hope, myth, courage, strength and failure, Wilson's drama is all-human. Through June 3. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. 713-520-0055. $18-$27. — DLG

Made in America Houston Ballet's Made in America is the company's annual celebration of stateside-developed choreography. This year's program includes works by ballet icons George Balanchine and Mark Morris, as well a newly commissioned piece by dance sensation Nicolo Fonte. The opening piece, Morris's Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, is a perfect example of America's influence on ballet. Gone are the ornate costumes, elaborate sets and classical lines of a traditional production. Pomp and circumstance are replaced with simplicity, character and pure emotion. Drink is about the joy of dancing, and it's a delight to see the stars of Houston Ballet play with the inherent glee of Morris's oddball choreography. Perhaps the most anticipated piece of the evening is Fonte's See(k). Set specifically for Houston Ballet, Fonte's choreography is a psychological investigation of a performer's personal landscape. The dancers move under strobe lights that are both captivating and menacing; the lighting design hones in on detailed movement, such as a lover's embrace or the mangled pose of a trio. The Orwellian theme is underscored by Anna Clyne's captivating music. Theme and Variations closes the evening. Inspired by classical ballet movement, Balanchine's piece is the perfect eye candy for tutus-and-tights enthusiasts. A brigade of ballerinas in aqua and sea foam parade around an elegant danseur who has leaps and turns to spare. Like the best of Balanchine's work, there is no narrative, but it's impossible to deny the semblance of an imperial court scene when dazzling chandeliers hang above the stage. Theme and Variations is a little girl's dream. Through June 3. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713- 227-2787. — AC

Next to Normal The regional premiere of the rock musical Next to Normal has opened at Stages Repertory Theatre, giving us a vehicle of pure entertainment that will break your heart as well. Diana is wed to Dan, and they live with their daughter, 16-year-old Natalie. Diana is bipolar, and the disease is progressing. Happy McPartlin plays Diana, and she is understated, endearing and powerful as she grapples with unmapped territory in her mind. Brad Goertz captures her endlessly patient husband Dan with humor, charm and heart. The brilliant director Melissa Rain Anderson and Stages have created a kaleidoscope of a set that works wonderfully. The pace is comedy, but soon the gravity of Diana's condition takes center stage. Natalie is played by Rebekah Stevens, who's required to portray primarily petulance and rebellion. Tyler Berry Lewis plays her brother Gabe, required to be sullen and vaguely menacing, and nailing that. The day is saved by young Henry, steadfastly in love with Natalie, and Mark Ivy brings an attractive sweetness to the role. Kregg Alan Dailey plays two doctors, and his tall authority serves the roles well. The music by Tom Kitt is virtually continuous, with standouts: "I'm Perfect for You," "I Am the One," "Make Up Your Mind" and "Why Stay? A Promise!" Lyricist Brian Yorkey had created a perfect combination — achingly deep involvement with ironic distance — that serves the work admirably, making it vibrate with the pulse of life, poignant and heartbreaking, and likely to be etched in the memory of viewers. Brilliant direction, a galloping pace and powerful acting make an award-winning musical thoroughly enjoyable and deeply moving, in a triumphant production not to be missed. Through June 24. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

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