In retrospect, one of the most charming things about “The Foreigner” is the notion that playwright Larry Shue (1946-1985) fashioned his painfully shy hero, Charlie Baker, after himself.
In the play, Baker is a desperately introverted British man who arrives one day at a Georgia hunting camp. He is so shy, he leads everyone to think that he doesn’t speak English. Hilarious complications ensue, involving croquet mallets and the Ku Klux Klan.
Shue, unlike Charlie Baker, was not British. He was born in New Orleans, grew up in the Midwest and launched his acting and writing career in the Washington, D.C., area.
He was, however, painfully shy.
“Shue was so unfailingly funny and inventive that people were often surprised to discover how quiet and introverted he could be,” wrote David Richards in the Washington Post. “‘I’m a square,’ he once said of himself. ‘I stammer and stutter a lot. A real klutz, especially when I go out into the world to buy a big thing, like a hamburger.’ But he had a quick explanation why life sometimes intimidated him. ‘It’s because you can’t rehearse it first.”’
In fact, Shue was Charlie Baker, at least for a while. He stepped into the role midway during its off-Broadway run, after having already created the role of Charlie’s pal, Froggy LeSueur.
If this is one of the most charming things about “The Foreigner,” it’s also one of the most bittersweet. Shue died on Sept. 23, 1985, in the crash of a commuter plane in Virginia. He had been heading for a quiet week in a home he had just bought in the Shenandoah Mountains.
At the time of his death, “The Foreigner” was a certified offBroadway smash in New York and within a few months would become the longest-running play in New York. It had already set box-office records in Washington, D.C. In addition, his play “The Nerd” was the most popular American play in London. On top of that, he was one of the stars of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s “Mystery of Edwin Drood.” And he was working on a screenplay of “The Foreigner” for Disney.
He had finally achieved some wellearned successes. Then that commuter airplane plowed into the ground.
Shue’s talent was for comedy, as “The Nerd” and “The Foreigner” demonstrated. But he liked to use his humor for good purposes, as “The Foreigner” amply demonstrated. For all its sitcom shenanigans, it neatly skewers intolerance, bigotry, ignorance and white supremacism.
“He once told me that one of the things that gave him pleasure in ‘The Foreigner’ was that he could make it turn out all right for the good guys,” said Milwaukee Repertory Theatre artistic director John Dillon soon after Shue’s death. “In his plays he had begun to level his wit against everything that made him angry - pomposity and self-importance on one hand; cruelty, intolerance and prejudice on the other. He was too gentle to do that in real life.”
“The Foreigner” is a particularly apt play for our corner of the world. The Inland Northwest has its share of white supremacist groups. This will be the second time the Civic has produced it. The first production, eight years ago, was one of the Civic’s biggest successes.
This production features Scott Dunckley as Charlie Baker and Doug Kropff as Froggy LeSueur. The rest of the cast consists of Sara EdlinMarlowe, Jack Lippard, Gretchen Oyster, Brian Kitt, Samuel Pettit, Paul Wilson, Tricia Bland, Daniel O’Connor, Justin Kropff and Tyson deLioncourt.
The director is Pat Owens.
MEMO: This is a siedbar that appeared with the story: “The Foreigner” opens tonight at the Spokane Civic Theatre, N1020 Howard, at 8 p.m., and continues through Feb. 4. Curtain is 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sunday and Jan. 22. Tickets: $12 on Fridays and Saturdays, $10 on Thursdays and Sundays, $9 for seniors and $7 for students. Call 325-2507.
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