Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hillbarn stages laugh-filled 'Foreigner'

Charlie (Damien Seperi, left) gets an English lesson from Ellard (Ross Neuenfeldt). (Mark and Tracy Photography) 
Wrapped inside the laughter of Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” at Hillbarn Theatre is an unsettling reminder of the bigotry that’s come to the fore recently.

But it doesn’t come until the second act. Before that, we see an English Army demolitions expert, Sgt. “Froggy” LeSueur (Gary Gerber), who is in Georgia to train U.S. troops.

Taking some time off, he visits a longtime friend, Betty Meeks (Laurie Strawn), who owns an old but comfy hunting lodge. With him is his friend Charlie Baker (Damien Seperi), who has been under stress.

Froggy thinks Charlie would benefit from the change of scene, but Charlie is so painfully shy that he dreads having to converse with others at the lodge.

Therefore, before returning to his post, Froggy tells Betty that Charlie is a foreigner who speaks no English. The upshot is that Charlie overhears intimate conversations between people who assume he doesn’t understand them.

Others at the lodge are the Rev. Dave Marshall Lee (Matt Waters); Catherine Simms (Lauren Rhodes), his soon-to-be wealthy fiancée; and Ellard Simms (Ross Neuenfeldt), her not-too-bright brother.

Everyone except Dave is fascinated by Charlie. Ellard takes it upon himself to teach Charlie English (with a rural Georgia drawl) in a hilarious scene at breakfast.

The obvious villain is Owen Musser (Robert Fairless), the loutish redneck property inspector who threatens to condemn the lodge. Behind that threat is a plan for Dave and Catherine to buy it at a reduced price and convert it to a Christian facility. Unknown to Catherine, though, Owen and Dave have a more sinister motive.

That motive becomes clear in the second act when Owen and his Ku Klux Klan buddies arrive to threaten the lodge’s occupants. They spew hateful words about non-white or foreign people and espouse the goal of a white Christian America. Thanks mainly to Charlie and Ellard, though, the dastards are repelled.

Along the way, Charlie overcomes his shyness and decides to stay, becoming a part of a friendly circle with Betty, Catherine and Ellard, who also undergo positive changes.

Because of the Klan angle, several theater companies around the country have canceled plans to produce this work. Hillbarn opted otherwise.

“In light of recent events around our nation, we believe our role as art makers is to not be silent or complicit,” Hillbarn artistic director Dan Demers said in his program notes. “It is hugely important that we celebrate not only our similarities but also our differences.”

This production is directed by Brian Herndon, who carefully balances the comedy and drama. He’s working with an excellent group of actors, all of whom seem perfectly suited to their roles.

Design elements enhance the production, especially the rustic but cozy looking set by Gary Keith Wong with lighting by John Bernard, sound by John DiLoreto and costumes, hair and makeup by Valerie Nishiguchi Bradshaw.

In short, everything adds up to a most enjoyable production.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “The Foreigner” will continue through Oct. 22 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit