Annapolis' only professional theater gains added stature with its current production of Larry Shue's "The Foreigner," the story of a proofreader on vacation who is so shy that he pretends not to understand English, paving the way for the people around him to speak frankly and betray their secrets.
The play — at Bay Theatre through Jan. 8 — is directed by Vincent Lancisi, who is the artistic director at Baltimore-based Everyman Theatre.
Herald Harbor resident Lancisi volunteered over the summer to direct Shue's farce for Bay Theatre.
"The Foreigner" opened in New York's Astor Palace Theatre in November 1984, winning two Obie Awards and two Critics Circle Awards before actor/playwright Shue was killed in a plane crash at age 39.
The play continues to capture laughs with its story of a shy Englishman, Charlie Baker, whose wife has a series of extramarital affairs before being struck by a terminal illness.
Charlie is persuaded to leave her bedside by his friend, Sgt. Froggie LeSueur, who invites him to cross the Atlantic for a three-day vacation at a rural Georgia fishing lodge near an Army base where Froggie conducts annual demolition classes.
To protect shy Charlie from unwanted socializing with the lodge landlady and guests, Froggie tells them that Charlie is a foreigner who does not understand English. Soon, the guests are divulging their embarrassing secrets in front of him, and he learns that some of these people are not what they seem to be.
As Charlie's affable Army buddy, Froggie, who opens the play, Britton Herring is a consummate comic actor with infallible timing. He helps his friend invent a foreigner persona, thereby considering himself a kind of Dr. Frankenstein in the process.
As Charlie, Bill Largess gives a star-caliber performance, creating an astute persona — from a depressed and cuckolded husband with pained expressions and no charisma to a receptive and tender listener who mentors dimwitted guest Ellard, who is dealing with his own problems. Through numerous transitions, Largess lets the audience glimpse the inner workings of his acting craft. He evolves into a gregarious, charismatic and indecipherable Baltic-sounding raconteur, scaling acting heights as he tells a Red Riding Hood tale in a tour de force monologue that sends the audience into hysterics.
Bay favorite Rena Cherry Brown gives another noteworthy performance as the confused, down-on-her-luck-but-kindly landlady Betty, who longs for the excitement of welcoming a glamorous foreigner to her rundown establishment. She is particularly amusing when she raises her voice to communicate with Charlie in somewhat baffling conversations.
Annie Grier gives a believable portrayal of heiress Catherine, who befriends Charlie and has a romantic relationship with Reverend David, well-played by Peter Wray, who graced Bay's stage in "Mauritius" last season.
Wray's David is surprisingly allied with despicable redneck Klansman Owen, menacingly played to perfection by Everyman Theatre veteran Stephen Patrick Martin in his Bay Theatre debut.
A standout in this stellar cast is University of Maryland, Baltimore County acting student Sean McComas, who is completely convincing as the browbeaten, clueless and often exasperating Ellard, who gains courage and confidence under Charlie's tutelage. Ellard's scenes teaching English to Charlie are excruciatingly funny.
The 21/2-hour play has some spots that drag a bit and sometimes express a generalized opinion of Southerners that doesn't adequately distinguish them from redneck bigots. But the talent on- and off-stage made that easy to overlook.
Notable special effects are created by the artistic team of technical director Brian Mandel, sound designer Christopher Baine and lighting designer Andrew Griffin, assisted by Steven and Preston Strawn. Among the magic created is the "Wizard of Oz" Wicked Witch-like disappearance of a Klansman who, amid strange vapors, vanishes into the floor before the audience's eyes, leaving only his sheet behind.
If you go
"The Foreigner" runs Thursdays-Sundays through Jan. 8 at Bay Theatre, 275 West St., Annapolis. Tickets: 410-268-1333.