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The Foreigner in Fine Hands at Company OnStage

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The setup:

Larry Shue's sweet backwoods comedy (1983), a staple of regional theaters and as often performed as his earlier The Nerd (1981), receives an equally sweet rendition at Company OnStage. Shue's often very funny play is in fine hands, eliciting all the laughs -- and the gentle message -- it amply provides.

The execution:

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 Betty's (Jeanette Sebesta) fishing lodge 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's so painfully shy, he 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. 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 and therefore reveal mighty unpleasant secrets of their own.

Catherine (Elyse Rachal), a former debutant and heiress to a substantial fortune, confides that she has doubts about her impending marriage to the amazingly good and patient Christian pastor David (James Reed), while her "slow" brother Ellard (Geoffrey Geiger), whom everybody treats like the village idiot, subtly reveals that he has hidden talents no one has imagined. 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. Seeing the changes he causes, Charlie, too, emerges from his shell and helps set everything right.

Barron finds just the right note of bemused silliness for Charlie, who invents a hodge-podge language to fool the yokels. He "comes out" in a wonderfully idiotic fairy tale that Charlie invents to amuse Betty and friends, and that Barron makes his own. Sebesta's homey and warm Betty, down-to-earth and very believable, is convinced she can communicate with him by a sort of mental telepathy that she alone intuits. While we never believe that Catherine was once a Southern belle, Rachel plays her conversion from blushing fiancée to shocked young woman with growing conviction. Geiger is particularly good as not-so-dumb Ellard, and his "breakfast scene" with Barron, in which he doesn't quite know how to respond to this stranger who is mimicking his every move, is darn near classic.

Reed overplays David from the beginning, coming on much too strong against Catherine, so we never get the shock of revelation when we learn what the goodly pastor is up to -- he shouldn't be played like Owen. Wielding a switchblade, Wind's scarily effective performance as the prototypical redneck adds a whole other layer of menace to Shue's featherweight play. He makes us catch our breath. Froggy jumps in and out of the comedy at convenient moments, and Jones gives him the right amount of good-old-boy exasperation at seeing what Charlie has wrought in his absence.

On the production side, I wish they'd reinforce the nicely realized set from L. Robert Westeen. Every time someone slams the lodge's front door, the flats shake and threaten to bring down the deer head mounted above the doorway. An actor impaled on antlers would be a real bummer.

The comedy has its own lovely logic, with hints planted slyly along the way for the big payoff when the lodge confronts the bigots at the play's finale. Shue allows every character to shine, which is one of the reasons this play has been so successful over two decades.

The verdict:

Playwright Shue died in a plane crash soon after The Foreigner's off -Broadway premiere, so he never lived to see how successful his play would become. Under director Stacy Bakri, Company OnStage's production makes Shue's sweet little butterfly, if not a thing of soaring beauty, at least a bit lighter than air.

Shue's definitive comedy runs through June 9 at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. Purchase tickets online at the company Web site or call 713-726-1219. $12-$15.

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