‘It Can’t Happen Here’ seems eerily timely

As if the current political climate weren’t worrisome enough for many people, Foothill Theatre Arts presents “It Can’t Happen Here.”

It chronicles the rise of a populist presidential candidate who promises better times, wins the office and then oversees the country’s rapid demise into fascism and cruel repression.

Sinclair Lewis wrote his prescient novel in 1935 when rabble-rousing Huey Long was running for president (he was assassinated before being nominated) against Franklin Roosevelt and Hitler’s Nazi regime was rising in Europe.

Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Bennett S. Cohen created their new version early last year, and it premiered at Berkeley Rep later that year.

Thomas Times plays Buzz Windrip, the charismatic candidate. His stump speech sounds like a revival meeting. Times is black, thus negating racial aspects, but it’s unlikely that a black man would alone win, the presidency in the 1930s. However, Times does such a good job that it’s easy to suspend disbelief.

As Windrip gains traction, Doremus Jessup (Vic Prosak), a liberal newspaper editor in a small Vermont town, abhors what he’s doing but tries to understand his appeal. Jessup’s strongest supporter is Lorinda (Carla Befera), an innkeeper who’s also his girlfriend, even though he’s married.

The plot focuses on Jessup as his situation grows worse and worse.

Skillfully directed by Bruce McLeod, the large cast is a mix of students and community members, the latter led by Prosak and Befera, who provide solid grounding to the action.

Some other noteworthy performers are Alexis Standridge as Sissy, Jessup’s loyal daughter; and Seton Chiang, who does double duty as Bishop Prang, the evangelical churchman who endorses Windrip; and as Effingham Swan, the menacing militiaman who grills Jessup after his capture.

Design elements enhance the production with sets and projections by Lynn Grant, lighting by Dan Wadleigh, costumes by Chiara Cola and sound by Max Stanylov.

Running about two hours with one intermission, this scary play nevertheless ends on an updated, hopeful note with the actors on their smartphones texting this message: “Make America human again.” It’s worth seeing.

“It Can’t Happen Here” continues through Nov. 19 in the Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit www.foothill.edu/theatre/.