At long last, and after months of construction delays that caused the first few plays on the schedule to be staged in a recreation room, the Laurel Mill Playhouse is opening its first production in its newly renovated storefront theater on Laurel's Main Street.
Despite the intimate theater's fine acoustics and a talented cast, you will not understand much of what is said. But that is to be expected, because the play is Israel Horovitz's 1976 comedy "The Primary English Class," in which five of the seven characters don't speak English and chatter on in their native languages. With the sounds of Italian, Chinese, German, Japanese and French mixing with English, the 100-year-old former general store now is the setting for a shower of babble.
With firm control by Lenora Dernoga and Linda Bartash, who share the directing credit, and with occasional help from off-stage translators, the energetic cast members convey a lot about their characters, a group of newly arrived immigrants who gather in a grimy, sixth-floor walkup classroom for their first-ever English class. Horovitz is not subtle, and the students are walking caricatures; the Italian man a flirt and the German man obsessive, for instance. The Frenchman even wears a beret.
The playwright's message that human experience crosses cultural lines is clear as the students arrive, one at a time and out of breath, making identical comments about the climb, the food at a restaurant downstairs and even the room lighting.
The observation about the illumination, "At least the lights are on. Dim, but on," seems to be Horovitz's view of the American dream. The language problem, which keeps common sentiments from being shared, is his metaphor for the barriers between that dream and reality. The blase racism of the inept teacher, hinted at in her acceptance and casual use of ethnically stereotypical references, is another.
Horovitz keeps us wondering how the teacher could possibly be so obtuse in her dealings with the students, whom she expects to understand complicated, English-spoken instructions. Finally, he reveals that Ms. Wastba, played by real-life teacher Sharon Calloway, is in her first day on the job, with no background or education in the subject. The delay is a major flaw that Calloway, fortunately, is able to overcome, keeping the character somewhat likable even as frustration with her inadequacies mounts. Calloway allows us to see a bubbly strain of American optimism and a positive nature under the somewhat mean and insensitive exterior of the instructor.
In the midst of all the comic confusion, the most effective communication comes among the students themselves, aided greatly by pantomime, such as when they realize their surnames somehow seem to relate to "wastebasket" in their native languages before the teacher arrives. The cast is so effective one begins to forget they aren't speaking English.
As Yoko, Momo Nakamura provides the most heartfelt insight and the most emotional moments as she movingly reveals what she gave up in Japan to move to the United States. Up to this point, the giggling young woman's inner steel was not evident.
The other cast members don't speak the languages of their foreign-born characters, which, for most, becomes obvious only when reading their biographical information. Anthony Gallagher, as the dashing and expressive Italian, Signor Patumiera, is particularly successful, both in phonetically performing his lines in Italian and in occasionally speaking bits of accented English. The cast must have worked long hours developing the split-second timing the comedy depends on, dealing with incomprehensible line cues.
With vigorous pacing, the hour-and-45-minute play speeds by, performed here without intermission. It's a promising start for the new theater.
"The Primary English Class" will be performed through March 22 at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. in Laurel. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. For tickets or information, call 301-617-9906.