By Rachelle Hughes
When he died in a commuter plane crash in September 1985, at the age of thirty-nine years, Larry Shue may not have had an extensive repertoire of written work, but he did leave an impressive legacy of plays. Shue was first and foremost an actor; in fact he took roles in many of his own plays, as well as other television and theatre productions, but his shining triumphs are his full-length comic plays, The Nerd and The Foreigner. Both of these plays were successful and continue to find eager audiences in both the professional and amateur theatre.
Shue was destined for the world of the stage. He graduated cum laude from Illinois Wesleyan University, where he received a B.F.A. in 1968. After a stint in the army he began his career as a professional actor and playwright with the Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. It was not long before John Dillon, artistic director at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, offered a job to Shue at the Rep. Shue left the dinner theatre circuit to start a promising phase in his career. Although Shue was an experienced actor, Dillon knew Shue had written skits and short plays since his college days. He encouraged a reluctant Shue to use his writing skills. Without the loving bullying of Dillon, the world may never have seen Shue's twisted humor and heartwarming work.
Although he was a superb playwright, Shue admitted he found the writing process unpleasant. In a 1984 interview Shue admitted, “The thing that gets these plays written is stomach churning fear. They are selling the tickets for the play, so I know I must finish it. I worry about it all the time.” Many hours writing the comedies were spent on a bench overlooking Lake Michigan and Milwaukee's Central Library, according to a recent article in JSOnline: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (http://www.jsonline.com, November 2004).
Fortunately, he did finish both his final plays. The Nerd was first seen at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in April 1981 where Shue played the part of the architect. The Foreigner also had its premiere at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, on January 1983. It continued a long off-Broadway run.
Shue may have been a reluctant writer, but like any playwright he had his reasons for writing The Foreigner and other theatre works. Rep actor James Pickering, for whom Shue wrote the lead character in The Nerd, said, “As you can tell from Larry's plays, he had an extremely active verbal imagination. His skill at writing comedy was hard-wired into him. It was in his DNA” (Jaques).
Shue himself revealed the real reason for writing in a 1984 interview when he said, “The end result is so much fun. I try to write all the parts like I would want to play them.” That statement sounds a lot like one of the reasons the character Charlie kept up his farce in The Foreigner.
Shue has been described as many things, including shy, funny, eccentric, and talented. He loved acting, his comic writing was surprising and a bit unpredictable, and his theatrical interests extended to fiddling with make-up, disguises, and prosthetics. He used his kitchen as a laboratory to experiment with his favorite disguise material, foam latex. His kitchen turned lab was probably one of the reasons he spent most evenings eating out at an establishment called Ma Fisher's. Yet, the best way to know him is to see his plays. “What was really remarkable about Larry is people who know his plays really know him” (Jaques), according to friend Amlin Gray, a resident playwright at the Rep during the time Shue was a member of the company and later, after Shue's death, his brother-in-law (he married Shue's sister, Jackie).
Shue has a long list of acting credits that include parts in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, American Buffalo, One Life to Live, The Foreigner, and The Nerd. He also wrote and appeared in the shorts A Common Confusion, The Land of the Blind, and Another Town. He also won two Obies and two New York Drama Critic Awards during his lifetime. His playwright credits include Siliasocles, the one-act Grandma Duck is Dead, a one-act children's musical My Emperor's New Clothes, and a political drama Wenceslas Square. At the time of his death, Shue was working on a film adaptation of The Foreigner for Disney.