Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

When I saw Corey Mitchell’s picture posted on Facebook, I was reminded of how familiar he seemed to me. That was back in July, not long after the Hickory Community Theatre announced that he would direct the musical Hair. The show would open in September, which was still a spot in the distance back in mid-July. I was unpacking stacks of boxes, ones that had sat untouched in my house since 2013. After our lives were upended in 2012–when my husband was laid off–we relocated from Richmond, Virginia, to a house in Lenoir–a Dutch Colonial Revival that for all its beauty lacked the storage space provided by a two-car garage and a partially finished basement. The contents of my husband’s cubicle in Richmond had already found a home: the office of the newspaper editor (the job that had brought us to Lenoir). The shelves of books and drawers of files that had filled my own office towered precariously like a cardboard city in what was supposed to be the guest bedroom. Instead it was one of those rooms that you hope guests will never see.

 

Then after five years as an adjunct, I was offered a full-time teaching job. I had my own office again but not the time to move into it. So after the school year ended in May, I began to unpack the artifacts of my buried life and transport them to campus. As I opened box after box, fragments of those earlier years of teaching reentered my consciousness, including the image of a young man who appeared in my mind as a decades-younger version of Corey Mitchell, a young man I’d taught at UNC-Wilmington. Hadn’t I read that Corey had graduated from UNCW?–and didn’t I teach a Mitchell there?

Not long after that–a couple of days later, perhaps–I opened a box that contained all of my old grade books, all the way back to the first semester I taught, as a grad student, back in 1990. The gradebook that I used two years later at UNCW was the oldest in the stack, one passed down to me by my parents, an unused one pulled from one of their own file cabinets after they retired. The column for student names in that vintage Hall’s Class Record Book was so narrow that only the last names fit. I found what I was looking for between Lofton and Onuffer: Mitchell. I was relatively certain that it was Corey.

As the director of Hair at HCT, Corey was working closely with the theatre’s Artistic Director, Pam Livingstone, whom I knew from my own stage work there, so I sent her this email:

Corey Mitchell has looked familiar to me since I saw his face on the Tonys and in the news back in 2015, now I may know why. I read recently that he’s a graduate of UNC-Wilmington. I taught there for the 1991-92 school year before moving to Tallahassee to begin my PhD work.

The last class that I taught at UNCW was a four-week summer survey of American literature. When you teach a class of thirty-seven students for only a month, you don’t remember much about  them 25-plus years later. But I do remember a highly intelligent, charismatic, deep-voiced young man who was clearly going places, Today I found my gradebook from that year. I didn’t record the students’ first names, but ‘Mitchell’ is there, and I think it’s Corey.

Would you please ask him when he attended UNCW? If he was my student, I would like to speak with him briefly before one of the rehearsals.

Pam answered, yes, it was Corey, and he came into sharper focus. I could see him sitting in my office. He was wearing a hat. He often wore a hat. I began to remember part of a conversation we’d had. I emailed him to recount how he’d spoken with me about his admiration for Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Today, a month after I found his name in that old gradebook, I went to HCT’s rehearsal hall to surprise him with a brief pre-rehearsal visit. I chose today because it was my first day of teaching for the fall semester. Today I met thirty-seven of the one-hundred-plus students who will teach me this semester–as Corey taught me–as much, if not more, than I will teach them.

After I introduced myself to Corey, he invited me to sit down. He remembered reading an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club in my American literature survey course. He had enjoyed that chapter of Tan’s novel so much that he bought a copy of the book. Was her novel the subject of that outstanding oral presentation that he delivered? As he spoke with me, he demonstrated the attentiveness that the best teachers possess. That attentiveness is one of the many qualities that led Corey to win the first Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education back in 2015.

His devotion to his students at Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts is chronicled in the 2015 documentary Purple Dreams, which traces his students’ lives–both on and off stage–as they rehearse and perform the musical The Color Purple, an enormously ambitious project for which their school raised over $170,000  “to take 107 people–cast, crew and orchestra–and rent the original Broadway set and costumes to perform at the International Thespian Festival two years ago [in 2013] in Nebraska” (Toppman par. 9).

In my email to Corey, I wrote: “As a teacher, I am always grateful to witness my students’ achievements in the classroom and beyond. Congratulations for all that you have accomplished, and thank you for all that you have given back.” I tried to say that again tonight as I left the rehearsal hall, but what came out was simply “I’m so proud of you!”

As I drove home, my thoughts turned to one of Stephen Sondheim’s anecdotes about his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein:

Just before he [Hammerstein] died, he gave me a picture of himself, and I asked him to inscribe it, which is sort of odd because he was a surrogate father to me. It’s like asking your father to inscribe a picture. He thought for a minute and was clearly a little embarrassed. Then he got a smile on his face like the cat had just eaten the cream. And he wrote something. And when he left the room, I read it. And it said, ‘For Stevie, my friend and teacher.’

Corey, this former teacher of yours, just three years your senior, isn’t your mentor or your surrogate mother. But these reflections are a portrait inscribed to you, “To my teacher.”


Lucas, Jane. “Corey Mitchell.” Received by Pamela Livingstone. 15 July 2019.

—. “Greetings from a Proud Teacher.” Received by Corey Mitchell. 17 July 2019.

Sondheim, Stephen. “To Me, Teaching is a Sacred Profession.” Sondheim on Sondheim. P.S. Classics, 2010.

Toppman,  Lawrence. “Charlotte Teacher Wins Tony Award.” Charlotteobserver.com, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/article23101743.html. Accessed 15 Aug. 2015.

I’m standing in the dark with my ear to the curtain, trying not to think about the large stock pot I’m holding. Or how easily it could slip from my damp, sweaty hands. I’m trying to block those thoughts with the words that I’m speaking in my mind, over and over, until I hear my cue:

FLORENCE Please ring again.

Cosme rings the bell a second time, on this occasion with more force. After a short pause, the sound of a pan [stock pot] being slammed down is heard off stage. (1.1)

Finally dropping the stock pot offers no relief from my anxiety; instead it heightens it, because it means that I’m closer to saying María’s lines, and closer to the risk that they’ll slip away from me.

FLORENCE Ah, that sounds promising. Here she comes.

María, the Mexican cook and housemaid, enters. (1.1)

I part the curtain and cross into the unknown, a place where I don’t know whether the words that I’ve prepared to say will come to me again, as I, María, approach my boss, Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer in the world. Florence will ask María to bring tea and cake for her and her guest, her soon-to-be accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Disgruntled María savors the opportunity to tell Florence that she doesn’t feel like preparing cake and tea. She’s trying to clean the kitchen, and then she has to clean the carpet because Florence and her guests make such a mess. With what little Florence pays her, Florence can just serve herself. And so María tells her that:

Oh, pastel y te? No me apetece preparar nada para su mariquita. Estoy intentando limpiar la cocina y después tengo que limpiar la moqueta porque sus invitados dejan el apartamento como un cochinero. Con lo poco que me pagan, sírvanse ustedes mismos. (1.1)

I’m speaking the words rapid-fire—not as if I’m reciting lines in a script, but as if I’m someone I’m not: a fluent speaker. But no hablo español.

The rush that comes with being in the moment fades as I exit. My next line will be far shorter than the first, but as I wait backstage for my cue, I will be holding something far heavier than a stock pot: a large serving tray with a teapot, two teacups, a plate with a slice of cake, plus napkins and cutlery.

As I hold the tray, my hands begin to sweat again, and I’m trying not to think about how easily I could lose my grip (in more ways than one).  I’m trying to block that thought by mouthing my next line, one with a phrase that’s particularly hard for me to say. I think that saying luego me vuelvan (then come back) means voicing consonant clusters that aren’t common in English. But don’t take my word for it. This gringa’s no linguist.

Then once again I’m on stage, speaking the words rapid-fire, blasting through luego me vuelvan as if it’s second nature, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. And again the anxiety returns as soon as I exit. Despite the apparent ease of what I’ve done onstage, backstage I will always believe—throughout the entire three-week, ten-performance run—that the lines are about to slip away from me.

Why would anyone put herself through that?

The truth is, I almost didn’t.

It wasn’t the part I’d auditioned for, but that’s not the reason I was hesitant to say yes. Instead, I was reluctant because I believed that audiences would find me utterly unconvincing as a maid from Guadalajara. And I imagined that the same audiences that would bristle at the sight (and sound) of a fair-skinned, blue-eyed María would also be indignant at the director’s decision to cast an actor who wasn’t Latina.

Recently I was reminded of my reluctance to play María when my composition students and I were studying the essay “Always Living in Spanish,” in which Marjorie Agosín meditates on the vital need of writing in Spanish as a way to hold onto her native Chilé.  

As I gazed at the thumbnail photograph of Agosín on the page of the textbook, I asked myself: Would you have been so hesitant to accept the role of María if you’d known of this fair-skinned, blue-eyed Latina?

Writing of her perilous circumstances as a child who’d fled her home country, Agosín observes: “Daily I felt the need to translate myself for the strangers living around me, tell them why we’re in Georgia, why we are different, why we had fled, why my accent was so thick, and why I did not look Hispanic” (80).

Though I have experienced nothing remotely close to Agosín’s peril, backstage as María, I felt the weight of her words: “I had left a dangerous place that was my home, only to arrive in a dangerous place that was not” (80).

The stage is always a dangerous place, but accepting a role in another tongue meant venturing out of the dangerous place that was my home and into new dangerous territories: a place where some would say I shouldn’t (for lack of authenticity) and another place where some would say I couldn’t (for lack of believability). Those voices ran through my head until the director wore me down.

So this gringa said yes.

For all of my concerns about authenticity and believability, the real danger was the words, themselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that the challenge inherent in learning lines would be compounded by the cognitive shift required of learning them as a non-native speaker. When I say kitchen, in my mind, I see a kitchen. When I say cocina, I don’t. For the first time, I wasn’t visualizing my lines. Instead I was memorizing a series of unfamiliar sounds. I knew their English translation—and I’d kept a transcription with my script—but as a novice speaker, I couldn’t link the signs to the signifiers.

I had actually studied Spanish as a high-school and college student, but I conjugated my last Spanish verb more than thirty years ago, and I’d been a mediocre student at best. One of my most vivid memories of high school is a conversation with my Spanish teacher after class. Holding my quiz marked with a red F, he said: “Josefina [my sister, Jo] is so smart. What happened to you?” Would Señor Grave de Peralta have ever believed that theatre-goers would ask, “Are you bilingual?”

I am always grateful for the opportunity to return to the stage. As a nonmusical woman of a certain age, that chance comes all too seldom. Looking back at the months of rehearsal and performance of Glorious!, I am particularly thankful for the opportunity to embody a Guadalajaran. As María Gringa, I became a stranger in a strange and dangerous new place. I not only faced a new challenge as an actor, I also became a better teacher for my students who are non-native speakers. As María Gringa, I gained insight into the fears and anxieties they face when they struggle to make meaning of a series of unfamiliar sounds.

Three months after María Gringa left the stage for the last time, I was cast as an English-speaking French housekeeper. After learning an entire role in a different tongue, learning an accent alone seemed a cinch, though it proved otherwise.

After one of the performances, an audience member who’d also seen me as María Gringa asked me, “What’s your real accent?”

“Eastern North Carolinian,” I said.

He seemed rather disappointed.

Works Cited

Agosín, Marjorie. “Always Living in Spanish.” The Norton Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 79-81.

Quilter, Peter. Glorious! Samuel French, n.d.

On Friday, October 5, students in Professor Kim Stinson’s play production class at Catawba Valley Community College performed a dramatic reading of Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, the 2018-19 Interdisciplinary Campus Read at CVCC.

(L-R) Eljae Roe, Sarah Hawkins, Penny Ly, Jesse Hoke, Zac Howard, Jackson Shoe, Cameron Owens

Moving Dreamland from the page to the stage was no small task for Stinson’s students, but they met the challenge admirably, crafting a compelling dramatization for seven actors. Rather than assigning each actor the role of one of the real-life characters who figures in the book, the actors alternated performing the lines of each passage, evoking the sound of a prose poem and imbuing each story within the larger narrative with multiple voices–an effect that underscored the broad scope of the crisis, emphasizing to the audience that Enrique isn’t the only young Mexican entrepreneur, that David Procter isn’t the only doctor overprescribing painkillers. Theirs are but two of the many stories–and there are the stories of the pharmaceutical pioneers, the narcotics investigators, and the survivors and parents as well.

The unadorned performance space of blackbox theatre provides actors an opportunity to focus on character-driven stories with minimal technical requirements, making Dreamland a model project for such a venue. The seven students who dramatized Dreamland in CVCC’s blackbox theatre brought the audience closer to the people who inhabit Quinones’ book and offered a poignant reminder of how close those stories are to home here in the Catawba Valley, where we find ourselves ranked fifth in the nation in opioid abuse.

In my mind I have traveled back to my tenth-grade English classroom, to a desk where I haven’t sat for more than thirty-five years. Yet despite that temporal distance, parts of that room remain vivid to me: the side-by-side, long, narrow window and back door typical of public high schools built in the early 1970s and the air conditioning unit below the window. It was, in fact, the first public school in our county that was air-conditioned.

The relative smallness of the room seems at odds with the vast worlds of words that opened to me there in the pages of my textbook. I do not remember its title—all of those high-school literature anthologies had the word discovery or horizon in their titles, didn’t they? Though the title escapes me, I can still feel the waxy, uneven texture of the worn cover and the pages softened from semester after semester of students turning to these poems and short stories: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, “Grass” by Carl Sandburg, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed, and “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats.

Why I recall more of those readings from my sophomore year of high school than I remember from the two years that followed, I do not know. Perhaps those poems and stories remain distinct in my mind because I was just starting to enjoy reading again. Books were my constant companions when I was a child, but in junior high I became too restless and distracted for them.

Along with those works of literature that I encountered for the first time in the pages of my sophomore anthology, I also discovered among them, to my surprise, some lines that I knew very well but didn’t expect to see in a textbook: the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby.” (“Ah, look at all the lonely people / Ah, look at all the lonely people.”)

When Miss Peggy Stanton played “Eleanor Rigby” for us, I thought that she, my staid, middle-aged teacher (probably younger then than I am now) was antithetical to the screaming teenage girls in the footage of Beatles concerts. Miss Stanton was a woman of quiet strength. Childhood polio had left one of her legs shorter than the other, and she wore one shoe with a very thick sole to minimize her limp. I was so fascinated by her physical imbalance, I began to imagine her as a fictional character, a spinster school teacher whose brilliant mind compensated for her impairment.

As I sat in her class and listened to the words of “Eleanor Rigby,” I thought of my own loneliness. I dwelled on its particulars then, not old enough yet to understand that it wasn’t mine alone. But I began to understand something about the universality of our particular human struggles and began to develop my capacity for empathy in those days in Miss Stanton’s class, especially on the days when we turned in our textbook to the pages of Twelve Angry Men.

Though I may have seen the Henry Fonda film before I read the play, my first memory of Twelve Angry Men is reading it aloud in Miss Stanton’s class. I don’t remember which juror I was asked to read. What I remember clearly is holding one firm belief about the nineteen-year-old boy on trial for murdering his father and gradually realizing that what I had viewed as facts were merely suppositions, and that reasonable doubt warranted a verdict of not guilty.

Unlike the other works of literature that I’d read in English class, Twelve Angry Men didn’t dazzle me with poetic language or character development. The jurors spoke plainly. They were numbers without names. But when Juror Eight led his peers to question their assumptions, he led me to question mine. When I was a high school student in the early 1980s, critical thinking wasn’t the pervasive term that it is now in conversations about education. But that’s exactly what I was doing: thinking critically. And I was developing my capacity for empathy as I witnessed Juror Nine explain why he identified with one of the witnesses, an old man whose credibility is called into question:

I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant, old man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition, his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him, nobody quotes him, nobody seeks his advice after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing, to be nothing. A man like this needs to be recognized, to be listened to, to be quoted just once. This is very important. It would be so hard for him to recede in the background . . . . (Rose 36)

That old man was Eleanor Rigby, and so was Juror Nine.

Now, so many years later, I find myself revisiting the play as a reader of a different sort. I am sitting with its lines before me on three-by-five index cards, part of the line-learning ritual that I adopted when I returned to acting in my forties. Back in that tenth-grade classroom, 188 miles and decades away, I see that fifteen-year-old version of myself who had just started acting a year earlier. I am a stranger to her. I, this woman she would become, who would turn away from acting—to focus on college, and teaching, and writing—and then turn back to acting, and fall in love with it all over again, decades later.

As I study my lines, I continue to reflect on first reading Twelve Angry Men and on “Eleanor Rigby,” the two inextricably yoked in my mind—not only because I read them both my sophomore year but also because of their music. In the twelve jurors of Rose’s play, I hear the violins, violas, and cellos of “Eleanor Rigby.” And to be one of Rose’s players, to carry the music of a juror’s voice from page to stage, makes my heart sing.

Works Cited

Lennon, John and Paul McCartney. “Eleanor Rigby.” Revolver. Capitol, 1966.

Rose, Reginald. Twelve Angry Jurors. 1954. Penguin, 2006.

Serafina and the Black Cloak / LR Playmakers

Blending elements of fairy tales, gothic mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction, Robert Beatty’s young-adult novel Serafina and the Black Cloak chronicles the title character’s quest to solve the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak and his link to the children who are one by one disappearing from the Biltmore Estate.

Staging Serafina—as the Playmakers at Lenoir-Rhyne University recently did—poses a number of challenges, not the least of which involves condensing the action of a novel to a one-act script. With impressive economy, the Playmakers captured the spirit of Beatty’s novel. Using minimal set pieces, props, and costumes, projecting screen images on either side of the stage, and breaking the fourth wall, their production of Serafina and the Black Cloak conveyed a strong sense of both character and place.

Breaking the fourth wall proved particularly effective for the Playmakers, offering one solution to the problem that adapters face, namely how to convey information the audience needs, but that characters would not say in dialogue. Speaking directly to the audience at the beginning of the play, Serafina (Callie Cope) recounted how she and her father, the Vanderbilt’s machine mechanic, live secretly in the basement of the Biltmore mansion.

The Biltmore house, itself, remained a presence throughout the play as a backdrop in the form of a triptych of painted cloth panels draped over black curtains. Actors entered and exited through the openings in the curtains, creating the appearance that they were entering and leaving the mansion.

Entrances and exits occurred frequently and rapidly, with six of the ten actors performing multiple speaking roles (two to four) and many also playing additional nonspeaking roles, including rats, horses, trees, tombstones, gallery portraits, statues, and ventilation shafts.

Lightning-fast costumes changes required minimal alterations in appearance: an actor in theatre blacks pulling on a horse mask, for instance. Such simplicity served the story well, underscoring its place in the realm of fantasy, where the lines between human and animal blur and shift.

To fashion a sense of the vast forest that surrounds the estate and the action that takes place there, director Elisabeth Bokhoven integrated clips of the actors filmed in the woods. In the scene where Serafina’s Father, “Pa” (Chase Fowler) reveals where he found her (50-52 in Beatty’s novel), Pa and Serafina become a tableau vivant, frozen on stage, as the large screens that framed them projected a film clip of Pa in the woods, the camera following him through the trees to the spot where he finds the bundle that holds the infant Serafina.

No stage production of a fantasy story can create the special effects that a film can, but integrating film into a stage production with innovative set and costume design, and actors breaking the fourth wall, reminds audiences of the immense possibilities of theatre when dramatists use their imaginations to develop creative solutions. What the Lenoir-Rhyne Playmakers brought to life in their adaptation of Serafina and the Black Cloak displayed the real magic of the craft.

Works Cited

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Serafina and the Black Cloak. By Robert Beatty, adapted by Elisabeth Bokhoven, Callie Cope, Chase Fowler, Milissia Kocelik, and Heather Osterer, directed by Elisabeth Bokhoven, performances by Callie Cope, Chase Fowler, Caleb Hoyle, Milissia Koncelik, Ashton Pesterfield, Hannah Saunders, Ariona Smith, Taylor Thomas, and Corey Smith, LR Playmakers, 14 Apr. 2018, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Girl at the Mirror. The Saturday Evening Post. 6 Mar. 1954 / nrm.org

In Norman Rockwell’s painting Girl at the Mirror, the face that viewers see is the girl’s reflection—not her face itself, but the one she sees in the glass. What does she see in herself, and what do the paintings’ observers see, as we witness this private moment? Does her lace-trimmed petticoat evoke in her, or in us, thoughts of the wedding gown that she may wear one day? For Rockwell’s detractors—and for those who consider him a guilty pleasure—Girl at the Mirror and his other covers for The Saturday Evening Post present a sentimentalized depiction of American life, the same picket-fenced cliché that many who find fault with Our Town perceive as the prevailing image of the play. As theatre scholar Donald Margulies writes in his foreword to Our Town, many people who dislike it have “dismissed [it] as a corny relic of Americana and relegated Thornton Wilder to the kitsch bin along with Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra” (xi). Yet a close look at Our Town and Girl at the Mirror reveals portraits of American life that are far from idyllic.

As she gazes pensively in the mirror, the girl in Rockwell’s painting might be asking herself the same question that Emily Webb asks her mother: “[A]m I pretty?” (31). Though Mrs. Webb tries to reassure her daughter, Emily seeks an answer that her mother’s words fail to provide.

Both Emily and the Girl at the Mirror occupy that awkward space between childhood and adulthood—a notion that Rockwell emphasizes with the composition of his painting, placing the girl between her childhood toy, the doll that she has cast aside, and her new grown-up object of interest, movie star Jane Russell, who gazes up at her from the page of a magazine. Will I ever be beautiful and desirable, the way you are? the girl might be asking of Russell. Or, as Emily asks her mother: “Am I pretty enough . . . to get anybody . . . to get people interested in me? (32). Though Mrs. Webb answers Emily, she does not provide the answer that her daughter seeks. Telling Emily, instead, that she has “a nice pretty young face” (31) and that she’s “pretty enough for all purposes” (32), she avoids the subject of adult desire that underlies Emily’s questions.

Though the audience feels the frustration in Emily’s voice as she says, “Oh, Mama, you’re no help at all” (32), only later in the play do we feel the full weight of those words when Mrs. Webb confesses in the wedding scene that she has never talked to Emily about sex: “It’s cruel, I know, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything” (76). Mrs. Webb’s monologue turns the scene of her daughter’s wedding into a reminder of the vulnerability and pain that come as a consequence of a lack of sexual knowledge. That same darkness at the edge of a seemingly quaint picture appears in Girl at the Mirror. Consider the doll, just beyond the mirror and the viewer’s focus, innocently cast aside perhaps, but backed up to the edge of the mirror’s frame. To the adult eye, the doll’s posture is clearly one of sexual submissiveness.

Both Wilder’s and Rockwell’s visions are more complex than what their critics give them credit for—or more accurately deny them—rendering the trouble that lurks below the surfaces of our daily encounters. And while the sexual innocence of Emily Webb and Rockwell’s Girl at the Mirror may seem distant to us, the silence that endangers their innocence pervades our lives. Now as revelations of celebrities’ and politicians’ transgressions saturate our news streams, the silences of Wilder’s characters seem eerily prescient. Can anyone now hear Mrs. Webb say, “I couldn’t bring myself to say anything” (76), without thinking of our own culture of silence—and of  Roy Moore and Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein—and of all the predators in our own towns, places supposedly so far removed Grover’s Corners?

Meanwhile, back in Our Town, Mrs. Gibbs says of Simon Stimson’s alcoholism that “the only thing the rest of us can do is just not to notice it” (40). And Constable Warren says, “‘Twant much” (104), of a Polish immigrant nearly freezing to death, another way of saying that some lives do not matter as much as others, a prejudice that we know all too well as no mere relic of the past.  Those moments in Our Town not only belie the notion of Grover’s Corners as a saccharine portrait of America but also demonstrate that the play critiques the very parochialism that its detractors denounce as its stock-in-trade.

In his reassessment of Rockwell’s paintings, Richard Halpern observes that “[a] false belief in our own sophistication or knowingness is just another form of innocence” (par. 17). The same innocence may prevent us from seeing Our Town with real clarity, the way that Emily only truly sees her twelfth birthday when she revisits it after death. As she says to the Stage Manager, “I can’t look at everything hard enough” (105). Perhaps in our own innocence, neither can we.

Works Cited

Halpern, Richard. “Manufacturing Innocence,” excerpt from Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, U. of Chicago P., http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/N/bo3750655.html, Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

Margulies, Donald. Foreword. Our Town by Thornton Wilder. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003, xi-xx.

Rockwell, Norman. Girl at the Mirror. The Saturday Evening Post, 6 Mar. 1954. Norman Rockwell Museum, 2016, http://www.nrm.org/MT/text/GirlMirror.html, Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003.

When the thought of making small talk with the other guests at a fishing lodge overwhelms Charlie Baker, his friend Froggy LeSueur concocts a story to enable the shy, fretful Charlie to avoid conversation—and to do so without seeming rude. Froggy tells Betty Meeks, the owner of the lodge, that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t speak English. And to stave off questions about Charlie’s homeland, Froggy implies that he can’t disclose that information because Charlie is on a classified mission.

And so the farce of the not-so-foreign foreigner begins. While Charlie—a proofreader for a science fiction magazine—is in fact a true foreigner on American soil, no one in Tilghman County, Georgia would think of him as foreign if he spoke in his native tongue, as Froggy, his friend and fellow Englishman, does. The ruse of the language barrier becomes a boon not only to Charlie but also to Betty and her guests. As Charlie observes to Froggy:  “Because of me, you see? We—all of us, we’re becoming—we’re making one another complete, and alive, and—oh, I can’t explain” (2.1). As Froggy watches the guests grow more fascinated by his friend and his made-up, pseudo-Baltic language (gok, blit, etc.), Froggy remarks to Betty that he’s feeling “a bit dull,” to which Betty replies: “No, now Frog. You cain’t help it if you ain’t a foreigner.” But of course Froggy is a foreigner, as the audience knows, and Charlie is, too—but not in the sense that the other characters believe he is, and that dramatic irony becomes the play’s driving force.

Ultimately, The Foreigner is not about foreignness but rather about misunderstandings and misperceptions—in particular the ones that engender racism and xenophobia. Charlie and the friends he makes at Betty’s lodge prevail over the villains who have been in their midst throughout the play, one of whom has appeared to be their ally. That villain is fundamentally more frightening than the one whose hatefulness and penchant for violence has been clear from the start.

Seeing those villains on stage now, reminds theatregoers that Larry Shue’s comedy is not the period piece that it may appear to be. When one of the characters reads aloud a magazine story to show how out-of-date it is, she is reading the story of the naming of the infant Prince William, which was only a year in the past when Shue wrote The Foreigner. (William was born in 1982; Shue’s play premiered in 1983.) But though William now has two children of his own—and another on the way—the play’s villains are not old news. They are still here; we saw them descend on Charlottesville.

We will never know what Larry Shue might have written about our latter-day Owen Mussers and Reverend David Lees, the villains we recognize and the ones we don’t.

Only two years after he wrote The Foreigner, Shue died in a commuter plane crash. Since his death, The Foreigner has become a staple of community and professional theatres alike. Shue’s play has endured because of the appeal of its title character. But what’s vital for audiences watching it now and realizing its prescience is the potential power of its satire.

The Hickory Community Theatre’s production of The Foreigner returns for its third and final week tonight.

Work Cited

Shue, Larry. The Foreigner. Dramatists Play Service, 1983.