Comedy a shift for theater group

November 1, 2013

Tom Geha directs the HCC production of The ForeignerJeanluc Gusmao, left, as Rev. David Marshall Lee and Benjamin Meck, as Charlie Baker, in The Foreigner.

The Foreigner is the kind of play the Holyoke Community College community hasn't seen in several years.

A comedy.

"It's funny," says director Tom Geha, adjunct theater professor at HCC. "It's one of the funniest plays I've read, and it's not just funny; it's smart funny."

After a series of more serious, dramatic productions, the faculty in the HCC theater program decided the time was right for lighter fare, says Geha, and the award-winning "comic romp" The Foreigner, by the late playwright Larry Shue, fit the bill.

"Everyone knew the play and loved the play and agreed we should do it," says Geha. "So, it's a little bit of a change for HCC."

The HCC Players will present The Foreigner Nov. 14-16 and Nov. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. in the Leslie Phillips Theater in HCC's Fine & Performing Arts Building, with matinees on Nov. 16 and Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. The Fri., Nov. 22, show will be sign-language interpreted.

Tickets are $10 (general admission), $8 (students and seniors), and $5 (HCC students, faculty and staff).

The play is set in a resort lodge in rural Georgia during "the recent past." The guests include a British army sergeant called "Froggy" (played by HCC student William Wieliczka, of Holyoke) and Charlie Baker (Benjamin Meck, of Northampton), his friend, a shy, depressed proofreader who pretends he doesn't understand English to avoid speaking to the other guests.

The rub is that the other guests find the strange "foreigner" fascinating and will not leave him alone.  

"There are a lot of farcical elements to the play," says Geha. "I've seen some productions that had a little too much slapstick. That's not my way. It's a smarter play than that. The lines really take care of it."

Even though the play is a comedy, an undercurrent of racism runs through it. A looming sense of danger was another appealing aspect of the play, says Geha.  

In interviews before his death in 1987 - Shue died in a plane crash - Shue admitted he was too timid to stand up in real life against injustice, so he used his plays to confront certain issues.

"His plays were a way to right those wrongs," says Geha.  "I like to bring out those human elements. I'm not afraid of the quiet moments."

There are some loud and dark moments too. In the second act, the lights go out and things explode as the lodge is visited by the KKK.

"You don't see that in a lot of comedies," says Geha. "It's a bit confusing and chaotic. Even though we know it's not real, it's still a very frightening moment."

The 1984 play won two Obie awards and two Outer Critics Circle awards as Best New American Play and Best Off-Broadway Production. 

The other cast members include HCC students Michelle Ortiz-Saltmarsh, of Springfield, as Betty Meeks, the matronly lodge owner; Abigale Morton, of Northampton, as Catherine Simms, a emotionally troubled heiress; Jeanluc Gusmao, of Ludlow, as the Rev. David Marshall Lee, Catherine's fiancée; Alex Sopollec, of Palmer, as Ellard Simms, Catherine's dim-witted brother; Michael Fitzgibbon, of Westfield, as Owen Musser, a superstitious, dangerous racist; and Nick Baskowski, of Worcester, as Billy.

"There's a lot of broken people in this play, Charlie included," says Geha, "and they all put each other back together in a unique, comical way."

Photos: (Left) HCC adjunct theater professor Tom Geha directs The Foreigner. (Right) HCC students Jeanluc Gusmao, of Ludlow, and Benjamin Meck, of Northampton, rehearse a scene. (Thumbnail) Benjamin Meck as Charlie Baker, a.k.a., "the foreigner."


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