Act I, scene i
It is a stormy night in spring as two Englishmen, Staff Sergeant ‘‘Froggy’’ LeSueur and his friend Charlie Baker, enter the log cabin fishing lodge owned and operated by Betty Meeks in Tilghman County, Georgia, two hours South of Atlanta. Every year, Froggy serves as a weekend demolition instructor for the American army, and this year he has brought his shy and sad friend, Charlie, to America in an attempt to cheer him up. Back in England, Charlie’s wife is apparently dying.
After they arrive, Charlie is still inconsolably sad. For twenty-seven years Charlie has been a proofreader for a science fiction magazine, and he reveals that his wife finds him so boring that she regularly cheats on him. As uncomfortably shy as he usually is talking with people, Charlie is now terrified about being left alone for three days with strangers while Froggy leads his training sessions. Froggy promises to come up with some kind of plan to keep Charlie from having to talk to people.
In a conversation alone with Betty, Froggy learns that the proprietor is in danger of losing her lodge because the county property inspector, Owen Musser, is about to condemn the building as unsafe. Betty’s current guests at the lodge include Catherine Simms (heiress of a very large local fortune), Catherine’s fiance (the Reverend David Marshall Lee), and Catherine’s younger brother, Ellard, who appears to be a ‘‘half-wit.’’ If Betty has to sell the house, Catherine and David plan to buy it.
Froggy arrives at a solution to Charlie’s problem. He tells Betty that Charlie is a foreigner who is ashamed of not understanding English and mustn’t be spoken to. Betty is excited about meeting a foreigner, but, alone with Froggy, Charlie says he can’t pull off the ruse. Froggy agrees and leaves, telling Charlie to simply explain the joke to Betty. However, Catherine comes into the room, does not see Charlie, and angrily confronts David with the news that she is pregnant. When Catherine discovers Charlie, she is outraged that anyone would eavesdrop on her ‘‘real personal conversation.’’ Charlie is about to offer an excuse, but when Betty enters and explains that Charlie doesn’t understand English (saying ‘‘an’ Frog wouldn’t lie to me’’), Charlie feels trapped in Froggy’s wild plan.
The mean-spirited Owen Musser then enters and everyone leaves but Charlie and David. Owen and David talk freely in front of the ‘‘foreigner,’’ and thus Charlie overhears the two men’s plan to buy Betty’s fishing lodge and turn it into a headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan, which David jokingly refers to as a ‘‘good Christian hunt club.’’ As long as the necessary brickwork on the foundation remains undone, the lodge will be condemned and David will use Catherine’s money to buy the lodge at a bargain price. However, he must keep Ellard looking like a half-wit to keep from sharing the family inheritance; David tricks Ellard into bringing Catherine a carrot instead of a candle and leaves partially eaten apples around the house to make Ellard appear stupid.
Act I, scene ii
The following morning, Betty is trying to get the bumbling Ellard to bring sauerkraut up through the trap door from the cellar. Charlie talks to Froggy on the phone and tells him that something suspicious is going on with David and Owen. Betty is making breakfast for everyone and warns Ellard not to talk to Charlie, but Ellard becomes fascinated with the strange visitor and offers to teach Charlie some English.
Beginning to enjoy his little charade, Charlie encourages Betty’s enthusiasm for entertaining a foreigner, making up silly dances and gestures for her to interpret. He also begins to sit with Catherine, listening to the bored, former debutante complain about her life. Charlie gradually falls in love with her. Ellard enters and impresses Catherine and Betty with the English he has ‘‘taught’’ Charlie. It is indeed ‘‘a day for surprises’’ as the presence of a ‘‘foreigner’’ has rejuvenated everyone, including Charlie himself.