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To encapsulate the special sparkle that veteran thespian Maree Cheatham brings to a role, one could perhaps compare her to Angela Lansbury, a mature actor who has mastered roles ranging from elegant crooning aunties to murderous bakers. Cheatham's resumé encompasses equally diverse roles: endearing eccentrics, villainous vixens, and everything in between. Currently she's bringing charm, warmth, and good humor to her role as a kindly innkeeper in director Steve Albrezzi's superb mounting of the vintage Larry Shue comedy The Foreigner. A character actor extraordinaire, Cheatham parlays a role that could be interpreted as a stock-character type into a richly nuanced gem, capitalizing on the mix of farce and tense drama in Shue's sometimes surprising script.

The Emmy-nominated Cheatham (three nods for Search for Tomorrow)—boasting extensive credits in theatre, film, and television—believes she's in the prime of her life and her career, and she says she has never been happier. In addition to a fulfilling marriage, much of her contentment derives from her longevity in the business. She elaborates, "In Hollywood, you sometimes have the feeling people consider you dead after you reach 40. I feel that I'm blessed to continue to work so steadily." She says, even when she was a child growing up in Oklahoma City, Okla., she somehow knew she wanted to act, and that the best part of her career would come as she grew older. Her mother asked her how she could say such a thing—she had never even seen a movie. So she urged her mother to take her to a movie, and her fascination with the entertainment world began.

She admits that her role in The Foreigner, which she plays in alternation with Angela Paton, is specified in the script as a woman older than herself. She's also quite correct in saying this doesn't matter. She seems a natural fit for the part of Betty, a pivotal role requiring a take-charge personality. She captures the crisp humor in Shue's dialogue, while moving beyond the farcical elements to give us a likeable and well-rounded human being. She sums up the joy she derives from her chosen profession: "In light of what's happening in the world, with so many sorrows and tragedies, I feel the actor's mission is a noble one, bringing a little light into the corner where you exist." Watching Cheatham at work, one wholeheartedly agrees.

—Les Spindle

"The Foreigner" continues at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Nov. 20-Jan. 30. $12-25. (310) 477-2055.

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