Garden Theatre is building a reputation as a place that hosts quality productions by other companies — TheatreWorks Florida's "Little Shop of Horrors" and Beth Marshall Presents' "The Diviners," to name two from this season. That reputation will be further enhanced with its current offering, a funny, polished production of "The Foreigner" by Jester Theater Company.
"The Foreigner" is a staple of community-theater groups, but in the hands of director Jay Hopkins the comedy has been given fresh bounce — thanks in large part to the appealing cast.
At the start of "The Foreigner," a shy Englishman named Charlie (Keith Smith) is dropped off by his friend Froggy (Bill Warriner) at a guesthouse for a three-day stay. Charlie is down on life, down on himself and just wants to be left alone. This opening sequence is the only real wobble in Jester's production: Smith seems more shell-shocked than depressed or shy, and there's no undercurrent of the desperation that Charlie feels about his situation.
But from there, things quickly improve for the production (as well as Charlie): Froggy hatches a scheme that Charlie should pretend to be a foreigner who doesn't speak English; that way he'll be left alone. But instead he becomes the center of attention, and Smith comes into his own as Charlie begins to carve a new life for himself as "The Foreigner."
Perhaps there's a deeper message in the story about how we can all become the person we want to be — and Smith's demeanor as the wide-eyed Charlie reflects that idea as Charlie's confidence grows to funnily epic proportions — but Jester's production doesn't let anything get in way of the show's many comic moments.
Much of the comedy comes from the strength of the other actors. Elizabeth Murff, who so often shines in roles with some edge to them, here is delightfully all dither and sweetness as the guesthouse's goodhearted proprietor, Betty. Will Hagaman offhandedly makes simpleton Ellard endearing, and Warriner is a bundle of bluster as effusive Froggy.
Two newcomers to Central Florida theater leave good impressions, too: Gemma Fearn as a Southern belle is hampered at first by Larry Shue's script, which makes her character of Catherine unlikeable. But she has fun with Catherine's snippiness: "You two up for a game of Scrabble later?" she drawls at dim bulb Ellard and non-speaking Charlie.
Brett Waldon, with a zealot's grin and perfectly parted hair, oozes Southern charm as Catherine's fiancé, a preacher. He pitches his character perfectly to make later revelations shocking — and is a study in comic exasperation by play's end.
Don Fowler's Owen, a redneck good ol' boy of the worst kind, veers a bit close to cartoonish at times, but that helps take the edge off his villainy and keep a lighter tone for the otherwise silly comedy.
All in all: Solid laughs in a solid production.
•• What: Jester Theater Company production of the Larry Shue comedy
•• Length: 2:20, including intermission
•• Where: Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden
•• When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through April 1
•• Tickets: $24; $20 students and seniors
•• Call: 407-877-4736
•• Online: Gardentheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times