Nov. 23 2016 11:54 AM

Kristine Thatcher looks back on working with ‘The Nerd’ playwright

Left to right: Dan Mooney, Jim Pickering, Kristine Thatcher and playwright Larry Shue perform in the 1981 premiere of “The Nerd” at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.
Photo courtesy of Kristine Thatcher

Playwright Larry Shue was always cooking something — but it was rarely food.

“His kitchen was more like a labora tory,” said Kristine Thatcher. “He would cook up his next fake nose for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’” or “ways to expand his forehead. Larry looked different in every play.”

Shue wrote two popular farces, “The Nerd” and “The Foreigner,” and had begun to write for television when he died at 39 in a 1985 plane crash. Thatcher, 65, a Lansing native, worked with Shue in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. She remembers when she learned of his death.

“I walked into the green room and a bunch of actors were crying,” Thatcher said. “It was a horrible day.”

Williamston Theatre’s production of “The Nerd” opens this weekend. Thatcher performed in the play’s 1981 premiere as Tansy; Shue played the animated character of Willum. Thatcher knew from the first performance that the play was something special.

“The first production of it took our breath away,” she said.

The audience loved it and laughed enthusiastically.

“They would pitch forward and roll back,” Thatcher recalled. “It was like a horizontal wave.”

The loud chuckles sometimes overpowered the stage dialogue and forced the actors to pause.

“We had to wait and wait for laughter,” she said. “Larry had a very generous heart. He was very, very funny.”

Thatcher is looking forward to seeing the audience reaction to Williamston’s production.

“I wonder how it will hold up today,” she said. “I’m very excited to see what they do with it.”

After her stint in Milwaukee, Thatcher was active for several years in the Chicago theater scene. She returned to Lansing in 2005 serve as artistic director of BoarsHead Theatre but was laid off shortly before the group folded in 2009.

In 2012, Thatcher was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While her battle with cancer has led to several periods where she was too weak to work, she is optimistic about her work moving forward.

“I feel terrific! I got my energy back after the second round of chemo,” she wrote in a blog post last week. “I’ve been trying to get some playwriting done at last.”

Thatcher remembers Shue as an actor who was dedicated to his craft, especially his appearance on stage. She recalls visiting Shue to find various manufactured body parts “sitting in pots” and “ears lying around.”

“He was very inventive,” she said. “He took the physical aspect of his characters seriously.”

Shue often brought new plays to Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, seeking feedback from his peers.

“He would write these plays, and we’d do workshops,” Thatcher said. “I guess I was pretty mouthy. He said, ‘Put your money where your mouth is’ — and I did.”

That exchange inspired Thatcher to write plays of her own. Her first, “Niedecker” is based on the life of poet Lorine Niedecker. With Shue, she co-wrote another play, “Waiting for Tina Meyer.” The play was originally conceived as an episode for TV soap opera “One Day at a Time,” but the script never aired.

“Just before it was submitted, we found out the show was canceled,” Thatcher said.

Some 30 years later, in October 2015, Thatcher reopened the “Waiting for Tina Meyer” script for a one-night staged reading at Lansing’s Robin Theatre in REO Town.

“It was like visiting with Larry all over again,” she said.

And she’s hoping to visit him again this year.

“Long ago, we promised each other that we would get in touch at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve,” she said. “I plan to visit with him. I think I’ll give him a tip of the hat.”

Thatcher can’t help but wonder what Shue might have achieved if not for the accident that took 14 lives in Virginia, not far from his home.

“What on Earth would he be doing?” she said. “Whatever it might be, it would be spectacular.”

“The Nerd”

Williamston Theatre
Through Dec. 18
Call or see web for times and admission prices
Williamston Theatre 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston
(517) 655- 7469, williamstontheatre.org

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