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No Foreigners Beyond This Point

by Dolores Whiskeyman

More than 20 years ago, playwright Warren Leight spent eight months in rural Canton, China, teaching -- or attempting to teach -- English. That youthful misadventure forms the basis for the Tony-award-winning writer's newest work, the engrossing No Foreigners Beyond This Point which premieres this month at Center Stage in Baltimore.

The story of a brash young man who takes on a teaching assignment to impress a high school crush, No Foreigners explores the cultural divide between East and West in the most personal of terms. Andrew Baker and Paula Wheaton are "two red-diaper babies dropped-kicked into China" whose liberal upbringing has done nothing to prepare them for life in a rugged, rural Cantonese village. Here, where no foreigner has ventured before, the young lovers are the focus of suspicion, fascination, and ultimately, hope.

In 1980, Da Langís inhabitants are still reeling from the aftershock of China's Cultural Revolution, a brutal upheaval that Andrew once naively viewed as a brave "social experiment." He soon learns otherwise. Andrew and Paulaís housemaid is a girl of 17 who carries a stuffed toy because it's the last thing her father gave her. Their students joke about the dull propaganda films that pass for entertainment in Da Lang -- until another teacher asks to sit in on the class. In China, they learn, there is "inside" and there is "outside," and neither is safe for conversation that reveals more than one is wise to reveal.

Leight writes with trademark humor and affection for his troubled characters, but he neither sentimentalizes nor politicizes their experience. The Chinese villagers emerge, one by one, as individuals struggling to get by; even the least likeable character (John Woo Taak Kwon as the schoolís vice principal) has his moment of humanity. If the script has a weakness, it is that Leight belabors its final moments; the last scene gives little new information and is a rather weak coda to an otherwise fascinating story.

The production, however, has no such blemishes. Both Preston and Sheehy are first-rate, blessed with a uniformly strong cast of supporting actors, who double into a dozen parts as students, teachers, and other villagers. And director Tim Vasen uses Christine Jonesí modular set to best advantage, creating ever-shifting images of interior spaces that are never completely safe from prying eyes and ears. Itís journeyman work -- visually interesting, emotionally complex, and gratifying in its ability to transport us utterly into a place we never would have ventured on our own.

No Foreigners Beyond This Point
by Warren Leight
Directed by Tim Vasen
Cast: Carrie Preston, Ean Sheehy, Les J. N. Mau, Ben Wang, John Woo Taak Kwon, Jane Wong, Nancy Wu, and Andy Pang.
Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Tom Broeker
Lighting Design: by Matthew Frey
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Running Time: Two hours, 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
11/27/02 to 12/22/02
At Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD. Tickets: 410/332-0033
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman Dec. 4 based on a Dec. 1 performance.
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