January 29 - February 22, 1987, The Salt Lake Acting Company presents THE FOREIGNER in Salt Lake City, Utah. In this production, James Morrison directs.

Sometimes what transpires behind the scenes in a stage play is just as entertaining -- or dramatic -- as what the audience eventually sees.

Take Larry Shue's comedy, THE FOREIGNER, for example. The show struggled off-Broadway after it first premiered in the fall of 1984. One East Coast critic said it was "an early candidate for Boot Hill." And Los Angeles Times theater critic Dan Sullivan later tossed it off as being "worthless." Meanwhile, audiences were cheering the show and giving it long, loud, standing ovations.

Still, the show was about to sink out of sight when co-producers John A. McQuiggan and Douglas Lawson were able to secure some much-needed, last minute support from a Texas millionaire.

THE FOREIGNER went on to win two prestigious off-Broadway awards: the 1985 New York Obie and the Outer Circle Critics Award.

Then, just a few weeks short of the play's first off-Broadway anniversary, the playwright was killed in a commuter airplane crash on September 23, 1985.

Now, the late actor/playwright's THE FOREIGNER is taking regional theater by storm. It has had dozens of smash-hit performances across the country. Salt Lakers will see a regional premiere of the work when the Salt Lake Acting Company presents it with Los Angeles-based actor Ethan Phillips (of "Benson" fame) as the comedy's central character.

It will be directed by James Morrison, a well-known local actor/playwright (SLAC did his "Idle Wheels" last season). Morrison, a former Utahan, has been intermittently involved with the Salt Lake Acting Company almost from the first -- including its Eliot Hall days and when it was located at The Glass Factory in Arrow Press Square.

One of Morrison's earlier works ("It's not a dog - it's a pedigree") will be read by First Stage in March, and a newer Morrison work may read later on.

Morrison is also familiar with THE FOREIGNER. He performed in a recent production of it at Burt Reynold's Jupiter Theater in Florida. In that version, James played the role of the Reverend under the direction of Charles Nelson Reilly.

"Someone was interviewing me about the play recently for promotional purposes," Morrison told us, "and they just hated it when they saw it. I can't imagine hating the play at all, unless you've been mugged going into the theater or just ate some salmonella bacteria. I can't imagine it unless you hate Christmas, children, and everything that's good in the world... unless you're just perfectly unwilling to have fun."

Morrison, commenting on his work with the play in Florida, said he enjoyed the experience immensely. "It's such a fun play to be in, and people enjoy it and they laugh a lot. It was great fun. I had talked to Ed Gryska (SLAC's artistic director) and he mentioned he was thinking about doing it in Salt Lake, and I said I'd love to direct it. I like to keep my hand (in directing) whenever I can. I immediately thought of Ethan for the lead, and we worked it out so that we could do it, even though it came right down to the wire."

Morrison and Phillips both explained that the first of the year is a busy time in the L.A. area. It's the worst time to leave town because television pilots are being cast.

But, as Phillips added, "my attitude is that simply waiting to act is not acting. Rather than just wait around L.A. for a pilot when I could be acting here, doing something really good... I'm glad I came. It's fun and you remember why you wanted to act in the first place."

In the play Phillips portrays a shy, adorable hero named Charlie Baker, an Englishman who is brought by a friend to a rural Georgia hunting lodge to rest and get away from it all. Because he's so painfully shy, Charlie pretends he's a foreigner who can't speak or understand English in order to avoid having to deal with anyone. Ultimately, he makes up his own dialect, with hilarious results.

"When Charlie comes on, we have no concept of who he is. But when he gets involved in other people's lives in a good way, a loving way, he finds out who he is -- which is the answer to a lot of problems. Forget about your own self and get out and help somebody. You'd be surprised!"

Added Morrison, "On the other side of the coin, there's a potent racial message (in THE FOREIGNER), considering what's happening right now. I was watching the news today about civil rights leaders marching in Georgia, which is where this play takes place. They're marching in a town that hasn't had any black people in it since 1912, and the Ku Klux Klan is out in full force. This is 1987 and it boggles my mind."

Morrison said THE FOREIGNER approaches this manipulative rise in extremism from a much lighter viewpoint, "so you actually end up laughing at these people for being so ignorant, and you walk away thinking -- at the same time -- it's both funny and sad that this happens."

Phillips noted that "Shue's whole message is that nice guys finish first. That's what he's really saying. And kindness wins out, and you laugh the bad guys off the stage. But it's not cynical."

Morrison said he never got to meet the man who wrote THE FOREIGNER. "Larry Shue's plane crash occurred the same week the Jupiter production was cast.

"Even though we didn't know him," Morrison continued, "we did feel a little closer to him in going through his play. His death made it more moving. It's not the frothy little entertainment piece that people take it for. It has a very potent message, which is..." (Phillips interjects) "we define ourselves by being of service to another person, by helping others..." (Morrison finishes the thought) "and by what other people think of us."

Morrison said Shue's death "was a great loss to American theater, especially regionally. I think THE FOREIGNER is destined to become another classic. It can be produced forever, like CHARLIE'S AUNT. It's a play that people love to do." Synopsized from review by Ivan M. Lincoln, Theater Writer for Deseret News

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