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Categorized | Arts & Entertainment

Tragedy follows success for play’s author


Larry Shue

Larry Shue

Players to perform The Foreigner

by Terri Riggle

In just two weeks, the Cedar Springs Community Players will perform The Foreigner, a two-act comedy. In a sad twist of fate, the playwright, Larry Shue, was killed in a commuter plane crash in 1985, two years after his play made its debut performance. Shue, who was only 39 at the time of his death, was on the cusp of perhaps, some would say, international fame.

He had written two full-length plays, The Nerd and The Foreigner, which were both successful and continue today to find eager audiences all across the country. Both plays debuted in the early 1980’s, at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre where he had been employed since 1977 as an actor. He turned to playwriting in 1979 at the suggestion of John Dillon, the Rep’s Artistic Director. The Foreigner opened in January of 1983 before moving on to Off Broadway in 1984. It ran for 686 performances and now is considered a staple of professional and amateur theatre.

The Foreigner was still running in New York at the time of Shue’s death, and he was working on a film adaptation of the play for Disney. He also was preparing for his first big Broadway role, as Reverend Crisparkle in Joseph Papp’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

But how did Shue come up with such a loony plot? According to a 2013 St. Louis Dispatch article written by theater critic Judith Newmark, it followed Shue’s own life. Ed Stern, an actor at the Milwaukee Rep loves to recall the story. Stern explains that Shue was an actor at the Rep but he was not a happy man.

“Larry was very shy—painfully shy,” Stern says. “He was the kind of man who never seemed comfortable anyplace. He had gone to Georgia with his wife to open a dinner theater, and while they were there, she left him. He was just terribly withdrawn.”

At that time, the Milwaukee Rep had a strong relationship with Tadashi Suzuki’s theater company near Kyoto, Japan. (A hugely influential international theater artist, Suzuki is famed for his highly disciplined system of actor training.) When Suzuki’s company invited the Wisconsin theater to send an actor to join them for a short stay, Shue surprised his fellow actors by volunteering to go.

“John Dillon was the artistic director in Milwaukee then, so he went to see Larry off,” Stern says. “And when John got to the airport, there he was—dressed in Western boots and a cowboy hat. This was so unlike him that John got worried. He said, ‘Larry, what are you doing?’ And Larry said, ‘I think in Japan, they probably don’t know much about Americans. But I’m sure that they know about cowboys. So if I’m a cowboy, maybe they’ll like me better.’”

Shue’s instincts were correct. For the first time in his life, he made friends easily. He returned to Milwaukee with a self-confidence he had never expressed before—cowboy hat in hand, now decorated with the signatures of all his new Japanese friends.

“They loved him there, and he came back a changed man—a wonderful, outgoing guy,” Stern says. “He never withdrew again.”

Larry Shue was born in New Orleans on July 23, 1946, and grew up in Chicago. He was graduated cum laude from Illinois Wesleyan University, where he received a B.F.A. in 1968. He served in the Army, and then began his career as professional actor and playwright with the Harlequin Dinner Theatre of Washington, D.C. and Atlanta.

His acting credits include The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Delacorte in New York; American Buffalo with Berkeley Repertory; and television’s One Life to Live. Film appearances include a short bit in Sweet Liberty. Shue wrote and appeared in the shorts A Common Confusion; The Land of the Blind: or the Hungry Leaves; and Another Town, all directed by Daniel Krogh. Jerry Zaks won an Obie for his direction of The Foreigner, and Anthony Heald received a performance award.

“Larry Shue found himself by being a foreigner,” Stern says. “That’s what’s so brilliant about this play: its silliness has a rock-solid core. Its heart is absolutely glowing.”

Shue’s The Foreigner opens at the Kent Theatre on Thursday, October. 13 and runs through Saturday, October 15. Tickets are available from any cast member, at the CS Public Library or by calling 616-307-9473. Tickets are $10 for adults 18 and over, and  students 17 and under are $8. Performances start at 7:30 p.m.

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