Tuesday With Morrie, A Production to Cherish at American Stage
June 15, 2009 at 11:52 am by Mark E. Leib
Tuesdays with Morrie is a lovely play about dying and living, about making the most of one’s life and learning the importance of expressing love. In Jeffrey Hatcher’s intelligent adaptation of Mitch Albom’s bestselling book, all the drama in Albom’s story is gently brought to life, and Albom’s message to the planet — you’d better love now, tomorrow is the night — is communicated with only occasional wandering into sentimentality. Much of the success of the American Stage production is due to the wonderful direction of T. Scott Wooten and the superb acting of Michael Edwards as sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, and Chaz Mena as sportswriter and former Brandeis student Mitch. I’d seen Morrie before — several years ago at Sarasota’s Asolo Theatre — but the St. Petersburg version showed me possibilities that only remained latent in the earlier one. It’s true that the play has its limits — its vision of a well-lived life is surprisingly narrow, and it reaches a thematic plateau about halfway through its length which it only surpasses in its very last moments. But still, this is the sort of drama that gets under your skin and challenges you to evaluate not just its characters’ lives but your own. Unless you’re planning on living forever, it wouldn’t hurt to have a look.
Hatcher’s approach to the material has the play’s only two characters — Mitch and Morrie — addressing the audience directly and then stepping into conventional scenes of fourth-wall realism. What we’re introduced to through this method is Mitch’s first meeting, as a Brandeis student, with charismatic Professor Morrie Schwartz, who insists on becoming friends and who then encourages the impressionable student to pursue his dream of becoming a jazz pianist. But after graduation, Mitch doesn’t get very far with his music, goes back to school in journalism, and with surprising rapidity becomes a successful sportswriter and broadcast personality based in Detroit. He forgets about Morrie — until one night on ABC’s Nightline he sees Ted Koppel tell the story of Morrie Schwartz, a popular professor who’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and warned that he only has a few months to live.
Mitch flies into the Boston area to pay his last respects, but later, covering a tennis tournament at Wimbledon, he finds that he can’t get the old guy out of his mind. He returns for another visit — which becomes another and another, until he’s expected every Tuesday. Morrie doesn’t only dispense wisdom during these encounters: he also, visibly, deteriorates, finding it more and more difficult to shift his body in his wheelchair, to lift food to his lips, to move his head in any direction. Mitch helps as best he can, but first, and importantly, he has to overcome a coldness in his own character, a certain narcissism and careerism. So we don’t only watch Morrie die over these many scenes: we also watch Mitch come to life. You can’t help but wish that this counterpoint were more pronounced, or that Morrie had some sort of socio-political conscience along with his belief in family and friends. Still, the point is made clearly. As W.H. Auden said — in a line of poetry Morrie treasures — “we must love one another or die.”
And we must cherish these actors and director. Edwards as Morrie cannily underplays everything, never gives way to mawkishness or manipulation. Mena as Mitch is at first hurried and harried, then allows himself — almost against his will — to physically touch Morrie, to not be afraid of touching. Wooten directs with real intelligence, finding humor and pathos between the lines and in gestures and facial expressions that fill in gaps in the human stories, and Tammy “Ty” Massola’s costumes, from Morrie’s red bathrobe to Mitch’s unfashionable sports coats, make this emotion-laden story all the more credible. And yes, the new American Stage space is splendid; let’s hope there’ll be lots of successes in this beautiful environment.
Anyway, check this show out: it’s unembarrassedly aimed at every mortal in the theater, and it’s about a subject that no one can claim is irrelevant. It may even change you a little. And that’s more than most theater — even greater theater — can achieve. Tuesdays With Morrie has been extended through July 5 at American Stage, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, $24-$39, student rush $10, 727-823-PLAY. Mark Leib’s Rating: Four Stars