Social phobia is the most common anxiety disorder, impacting upwards of 12 percent of adults, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The disorder causes considerable distress and can greatly limit a person’s ability to function in public scenarios.
Social anxieties manifest themselves in multiple ways. A sufferer may avoid eye contact, physical touch or large groups. He may hide behind large sunglasses or be unusually shy and quiet.
Or, like Charlie Baker, he will invent an entirely new language with the sole intent of never speaking to any fisherman, debutante or Klan member in south Georgia ever again.
The meek British proofreader is the subject of “The Foreigner,” a 30-year-old-comedy opening today at University Theatre in Fayetteville. Masterminded by playwright Larry Shue, the story follows the depressed Charlie (James Taylor Odom) who has been dragged away from his ailing wife by best/worst friend and explosives expert, Froggy (Robert Flaherty Hart), for an American holiday.
Unfortunately, Charlie is too scared to open up to new people he meets.
“Charlie has developed an active fear of talking to strangers, for fear of his own shortcomings,” Odom says of his character. “His fear is so great that the thought of conversing with strangers sends him into a state of overwhelming panic.”
To allay Charlie’s fears, “good” pal Froggy simply tells their host that Charlie is from an exotic country and doesn’t speak a lick of English, he says. “Though hesitant, Charlie is left with no choice but to go along with this absurd plan.”
“At least Charlie thinks people won’t speak to him,” adds director and associate professor of theater Michael Landman. “He’s wrong.”
In fact, these Southerners do talk, and Charlie learns more than he ever wanted to know.
It turns out that that his host, Betty Meeks (Stephanie Faatz Murry), believes she is telepathic and shares an “extra-circular communication” with the often dumbfounded Charlie, Murry says. “She has spent her entire life in Tilghman County, Georgia. When a foreigner literally shows up on her doorstep, she is given a new lease on life.”
As is Ellard Simms (Nate Stahlke), a simpleton who tries to teach Charlie the English language. His older sister, talkative heiress Catherine (Kelsey Cain) is excited at the chance to interact with someone from so far out of town, Landman says. But although happy to put on the charm, she’s distracted. The reluctantly engaged Southern belle is, after all, in a bit of “trouble,” he says.
“As no one thinks he can understand them, Charlie overhears all sorts of revelations that set into motion a number of hilarious situations,” says Bill Rogers, who plays the role of the play’s villain, Owen Musser, a county property inspector who is racist, xenophobic and fond of wearing white. Knowing the Brit can’t speak English, this “quintessential redneck” has no problem speaking about his nefarious plans in front the exotic foreigner, he says.
But it’s probably OK that Charlie won’t converse in an understandable language anyway, says Odom. “We soon discover that Charlie believes himself to be ‘shatteringly, profoundly, boring.’ Those very words came from his dying wife,” he says.
“I’ve been wanting to direct this play since I read it 30 years ago,” Landman says with a laugh. “I could really see this play on its feet. It’s a funny, romantic, adventure, mystery, comedy that is laugh-out-loud funny and entertaining for the whole family.”
And although quite the knee-slapper, the show has a moral victory, he says. “It’s like a slice of Americana and a delight.”
“To me, ‘The Foreigner’ is about the power of friendship, its importance and how it can overcome adversity in the face of overwhelming odds,” Rogers says. “It’s also about how people aren’t always what they seem — some for the better, some for the worse.”
So after three days in Georgia, will the audience know who’s who, who’s hiding what and the true meaning of “Omskivar?” Ask Charlie Baker — but good luck getting him to answer.
Link to the article can be found here.