Bay Theatre Company’s The Foreigner

The Bay Theatre Company hits new heights of hilarity with The Foreigner, Larry Shue’s award-winning comedy about personal transformation and miscommunication. Judging from opening night’s nearly full house, local audiences are finally taking note. It’s about time, too, for Annapolis’ only professional theatre, always solid, has matured into exceptional. Perhaps word has spread that the season opener — Lips Together, Teeth Apart — was recommended as a noteworthy show by the Helen Hayes Award committee, which works to strengthen professional theater in the Washington region. Perhaps it’s the company’s recent publicity blitz. Whatever the reason, 2011 looks promising for a troupe that underwent a major reorganization just months ago.

For this production, the tiny stage is transformed into a rustic fishing lodge in backwoods Georgia, a cozy space equipped with essentials: careworn easy chairs, a potbellied stove, mounted trophy fish and a bar full of Jack Daniels, all steeped in acoustic bluegrass. What better place to get away, especially for someone from a foreign land?

Froggie (Britton Herring) a regular visitor and charismatic demolitions expert, arrives for his annual training mission with a chum in tow. Charlie (Bill Largess) is the English foreigner, desperate for a break from domestic stress but painfully shy (and boring). Froggie assures his solitude by passing him off as a non-English speaking foreigner. Charlie is loath to play along until he discovers the privileges that come with anonymity. Like the proverbial fly on the wall, he is privy to everyone’s business because they all assume he can’t understand their conversations. Being a foreigner, it seems, gives Charlie freedom to discover his inner imp and hero.

Chief among Charlie’s fans is Betty (Rena Cherry Brown), the inn’s folksy proprietress. An impoverished widow with a yen for adventure, she treasures his exoticism, fawning over him and yelling simple requests as if speaking to a feeble old man, a ludicrous tendency of Americans speaking to someone who doesn’t speak their language.

Catherine (Annie Grier), is the beautiful heiress bored stiff in the backwoods with her clergyman fiancé David (Peter Wray), literally too good to be true, and her dimwitted brother Ellard (Sean McComas). Ellard is not much company, his primary contribution being an unexpected and hilarious talent for teaching twangy English to Charlie. David abandons her for days on end to do God’s work with his buddy Owen (Stephen Patrick Martin), a redneck bully and the poster boy for xenophobes. So Catherine adopts Charlie as a sort of pet/confessor on whom she unloads her most intimate secrets.

Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Charlie unveils a malicious plot against Betty, Catherine and Ellard, and saves the day, with Froggie’s help, when some hooded good ol’ boys come to call.

A clever set-up can only carry a show so far, though. The cast carries it the rest of the way. Martin’s menace and Wray’s villainy are perfect foils to Brown, Grier and McComas’ varied breeds of naiveté, and Herring proves there is no such thing as a small role. Largess’ ability to speak volumes with expressions and mime make the show. His Charlie is by turns morose, scheming, shocked and dubious, and his gibberish retelling of Little Red Riding Hood is the greatest invention since the Muppets’ Swedish Chef.

Special effects are pyrotechnic and the staging masterful.

The Foreigner is suitable for all audiences, and theater tickets make great gifts.

Director: Vincent Lancisi. Greggory Schraven. Costumes: Rebecca Eastman. Lights: Andrew Griffin. Sound: Chris Baine.

Playing thru Jan. 8 at 8PM Th-Sa, plus Wed Dec. 22; and 3pm Su, including New Year’s Eve and Day. No show Dec. 24, 25.Bay Theatre Company, 275 West St. Annapolis. $30 with discounts; rsvp 410-268-1333.