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‘The Nerd’ Tests the Limits of Gratitude

The Ojai Art Center Theater production is on now through Oct. 19.

The next production at the Ojai Art Center Theater, The Nerd by Larry Shue, opened Friday and runs through Oct. 19. Directed by Tom Eubanks, it stars Jay Wisell, Roberta Raye, Sebastien Montgomerie, Douglas Hill, Laura Ring, Honzek Mikhalek and Vincent Ugolini.

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Larry Shue
The Nerd is the story of Willum Cubbert, an aspiring young architect in Terre Haute, Ind., who has often told his friends about the debt he owes to one Rick Steadman, a fellow ex-GI whom he has never met but who saved his life after he was seriously wounded in the Vietnam War.

Willum has written to Rick to say that, as long as he is alive, “you will have somebody on Earth who will do anything for you.” The warning to be careful what we wish for is given graphic illustration when Rick shows up unexpectedly at Willum’s apartment on the night of his 34th birthday party. Willum’s delight soon fades as it becomes apparent that Rick is a hopeless “nerd” — a bumbling oaf with no social sense, little intelligence and less tact.

Rick outstays several welcomes, his continued presence among Willum and his friends leading to one uproarious incident after another, until the normally placid Willum finds himself contemplating violence — a dire development that, happily, is staved off by the surprising “twist” ending of the play.

Shue was born in July 1946 in New Orleans, La., and grew up in Kansas and Chicago. He graduated cum laude from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1968, served in the Army during the Vietnam War, and then began his career as a professional actor and playwright.

His two best-known plays — The Nerd, 1981, and The Foreigner, 1983 — were written and first performed while he was playwright-in-residence at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in Wisconsin. Both plays later made it to Broadway, and have since become staples of community theater.

The central character of The Foreigner is Charlie, who, while on a vacation in a Georgia hunting lodge, pretends not to be able to understand English, so as to avoid the attentions of the other guests. His plan backfires and he soon finds himself the confidant of everyone there, especially a young boy named Ellard, who thinks he is teaching Charlie English words. Charlie ends up having to foil the schemes of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter without revealing his secret.

When Shue’s commuter flight crashed in the Shenandoah Valley on Sept. 23, 1985, America’s theater lost one of its promising young comic voices. He was 39. His gentle, character-and-context-related humor would have made a useful contrast to the one-line, wise-cracking school of Neil Simon. Other plays by Shue include My Emperor’s New Clothes (1968), Siliascoles (1968), Grandma Duck Is Dead (1979) and Wenceslas Square (1982).

The Nerd plays at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. on Sundays. There will be no performance on Oct. 11.

For tickets and other information, click here or call the Ojai Art Center Theater at 805.646.0117.

Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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