On with the Shue: Remembering the playwright who died in a 1985 plane crash but lives on in The Foreigner

Carol Schultz and John Scherer in the Rep's The Foreigner.
Carol Schultz and John Scherer in the Rep's The Foreigner. Lon Brauer

On with the Shue: Remembering the playwright who died in a 1985 plane crash but lives on in The Foreigner

The Foreigner
Through December 23 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves.
Tickets are $16 to $79.
Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.

For more than two decades, The Foreigner, which opens this week at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, has been one of the most frequently staged plays in the nation. Perhaps the comedy remains so popular because the oddball spirit of its author, Larry Shue, is imbued in the play's daffy characters. Perhaps without their even knowing it, when the actors succeed in inhabiting those characters, they're channeling Shue himself, who was loved by just about everyone who ever knew him. Including me.

We met in 1964 as undergraduates in the theater department at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. It took but a cursory glance to realize that Larry was of a different order from the rest of us. His mop of thick red hair surely was the envy of many a homeless sparrow. Birds, however, tended to shy away from him, because he resembled nothing so much as a scarecrow on the wobbly loose. Tall and angular, he had legs that generally moved at cross-purposes to his torso, as if his mind and body had difficulty agreeing on where they were to go. And his clothes — Larry didn't wear clothes very well. Sweaters (invariably frayed at the elbows) tended to sag from his shoulders the way a sweater might droop in the closet if the hanger missed the sleeves.

But my goodness, he was talented. Practically every word that came out of his mouth was original and funny. Never cutting or cruel. Never unkind. Just weird and wacky. One Friday night, five of us drove to Minneapolis for a weekend of theatergoing at the Guthrie. The other three sojourners promptly went to sleep. Larry stayed up all night, keeping me awake at the wheel as he improvised a marathon interview between a ukelele-strumming Arthur Godfrey ("How-Wah-Yuh, Ha-Wah-Yu, Hawaii") and baseball great Harmon Killebrew.

Larry was a brilliant comic actor who excelled in character roles. In retrospect it seems surprising that he learned lines with such ease, because he was absentminded about everything else. There was, for instance, the day he went through the cafeteria lunch line, got distracted, walked past our table and continued on with his tray all the way across campus to his dormitory room before realizing his error. Nobody thought anything of it; that was just Larry.

As a senior he portrayed Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, then promptly married his Eliza Doolittle. Eventually he joined the acting company at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, where he appeared in the premiere of David Mamet's memory play Lakeboat. So impressed was Mamet by Larry's talent that when Lakeboat's script was published, the author dedicated the play to Larry. Milwaukee Rep artistic director John Madden encouraged Larry to write. More than that, really; he demanded that Larry write. Both The Nerd and The Foreigner debuted in Milwaukee.

In 1984 The Foreigner was the first of Larry's plays to open in New York. It premiered off-Broadway to generally dismissive reviews. But positive word-of-mouth kept the show running for nearly two years. As The Foreigner neared its first anniversary, Disney bought the film rights; Larry was to write the screenplay. He also was cast in the Broadway-bound musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He took some of his newfound income and purchased a farm in Virginia that formerly had belonged to his family. On September 23, 1985, Larry Shue — 39 years old and coming on strong — was en route to his new home when his commuter flight crashed into a mountain in Shenandoah National Park, killing everyone onboard.

There's no making sense of such things. Yet I would suggest that Larry defied the odds, he defied the reviews, he even defied fate, because every new production of The Foreigner resurrects him. If you see the Rep staging, listen for Larry's voice. You will hear it, wacky and generous, in the lines between the laughs, which will never cease, so long as his plays continue to be staged.

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