I don't know if there ever is a right time for death, but for Larry Shue, the 38-year-old actor and playwright who was traveling on the Henson commuter airplane that crashed last week in Shenandoah National Park, the time was horribly wrong.
After years of labor in the theater -- joyous labor -- the portals of show business were at last beginning to swing open for him. "The Foreigner," his nutty comedy about shenanigans in the backwoods of Georgia, had caught on with off-Broadway audiences and, locally, set an all-time box-office record this summer at Olney Theatre. At last count, 68 productions of the comedy were in the offing and Shue was already working on the screenplay for Disney Productions. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, "The Nerd," his first full-length comedy, had claimed the distinction of being the top-grossing American play in London's West End.
As an actor, Shue had served a long apprenticeship in dinner and regional theaters, but that, too, finally seemed to be paying off. This summer, he had a featured part in the New York Shakespeare Festival's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," and the musical (and Shue with it) was scheduled to move to Broadway in November. He'd also just landed his first movie role. Sure, it was only a bit part in the upcoming "Sweet Liberty," but Shue could do more with a bit than just about anyone.
In short, show business was finally acknowledging what Shue's friends and fellow actors had long known: He was an original.
Washington was lucky to have known him better than most areas. In 1972, fresh out of the Army, he and his wife at the time, Linda, drifted here, looking for a chance to act. They found it at the Harlequin Dinner Theatre, which had just been formed. Over a five-year period, Shue was rarely off the Harlequin stage, performing memorably in nearly two dozen shows -- among them, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "1776," "Where's Charley?" and "Little Me," in which he played seven parts.
Comedy was his forte and his presence suggested an unlikely, but thoroughly believable synthesis of Machiavelli and Howdy Doody. A devious glint in his eye, he always seemed to be stirring up mischief, rubbing his hands together gleefully in anticipation of magnificent explosions. That was the Machiavellian side. But he also had the innocence of a marionette and in moments of rapture looked rather like Howdy Doody's stand-in. Because of that, he could get away with murder on stage. How could you blame a manipulator who gave the distinct impression he was being manipulated himself?
Shue was so unfailingly funny and inventive that people were often surprised to discover how quiet and introverted he could be offstage. "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 do a big thing, like buy a hamburger." But he had a quick explanation why life sometimes intimidated him. "It's because you can't rehearse it first," he said.
He was also gentle -- too gentle, he thought, ever to direct plays. "If an actor told me he didn't want to move left," he said, "I'm afraid I'd say, 'That's okay. I'll just move the set right.' "
From the Harlequin, he went to the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, where he started writing comedies under the prompting of artistic director John Dillon. His output was not yet large -- besides "The Foreigner" and "The Nerd," it numbered a one-act, "Grandma Duck Is Dead," and "Wenceslas Square," the account of a 1974 trip he took to Czechoslovakia with a founder of the Harlequin Dinner Theatre, Nicholas Howey. In them all, he gave vent to a zany, slightly off-the-wall view of the world that audiences relished. He liked to compare his plays to the bumblebee, noting that they didn't necessarily look aerodynamic, but somehow they flew.
"I think Larry was just beginning to understand his full powers as a playwright," Dillon said recently. "His plays were always laugh machines. But he was also starting to write about matters he felt deeply about. 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. 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" also revealed something paradoxical about Shue, although perhaps it is true of most actors: Like the hero of that play, a nebbish who comes out of his shell only when others mistake him for an exotic foreigner, Shue was most comfortable -- most himself -- when he was portraying another human being. The "role" both hid and revealed him.
Those who knew him well say he was an unabashed sentimentalist who hated to throw anything away. His apartment in Milwaukee was a shambles of memorabilia. He kept a coffee can in his refrigerator that contained -- to the astonishment of an actress who once opened it -- all the rubber and putty noses he had used for his various performances. When it came time for him to buy a car, Shue bought a 1929 Buick.
Sentiment figured in his death, too. Last week, he was on his way to spend a few days at a home in the Shenandoah Valley that had belonged to his uncle. After his uncle died, the house had gone on the market, but Shue couldn't bear to see it leave the family. Pooling the growing royalties from his various plays, he was able to buy it. Lately, he had begun moving in some of his favorite possessions, although the increasing demands of his career made it harder for him to get away.
No one doubted that his career shimmered with promise. "He genuinely loved the theater, as few people do, and not just as a place to show off in," said Howey. "He still had a lot of surprises in him that even he hadn't discovered yet. I would have been real curious to see what he might have become."
So would we all.