By Karen Isaacs
Tuesdays with Morrie is a book and play about which I’ve always been ambivalent. There is an element of emotional manipulation and Hallmark greeting card sentiment that leaves me unmoved while at the same time, the story is heart-warming.
Mitch Albom, the well-known Detroit sports writer, wrote the book and with Jeffrey Hatcher created the play. When Albom was a student at Brandeis, he formed a connection with his sociology professor Morrie Schwartz. Like many students, he promised to stay in touch with the man he called “coach” but, again like many students, he became wrapped up in his own life – from trying to make it as a jazz pianist to his later hectic and successful career as a sports writer and commentator on both radio and TV. (He is a regular on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters).
Years later, he catches the TV show Nightline and discovers Ted Koppel interviewing Schwartz who is now battling ALS. Albom decides to make a one-time only visit to his old professor to see him before he dies, so he flies from Detroit to Boston, where Schwartz lives.
But he is soon caught again by the personality and philosophy of his old professor; so much so that he wants to ask Schwartz questions, and decides to return every Tuesday, for 14 weeks.
The resulting conversations about life, love, happiness, success and dying, were the basis for the book.
In the play, we see Albom as he slowly comes to realize how much Schwartz has still to teach him. You get the sense that in his drive for success, Albom has lost a part of himself. He stopped playing the piano, works seven days a week, and seems to have little time for reflection on anything but sports.
Playhouse on the Park which is beginning its seventh season has mounted a nice production of this play without totally managing the sentimentality that threatens to drown the piece.
The large thrust stage is also a problem the theater must overcome, for this is an intimate piece; you should feel enveloped in the room in which the weekly meetings occur. Here, the stage is so large and open that the minimal furniture seems dwarfed by the expanse. It also makes it difficult to create intimate lighting though Aaron Hochheiser tries.
But the success or failure of this piece depends on the two performers. Gannon McHale plays Morrie with the right combination of charm and curmudgeonness; Morrie is both an optimist and a realist. He recognizes that he is dying – and we see his physical decline – but he still believes life is worth living.
Schwartz’ aphorisms sound simplistic but they aren’t: “The truth is once, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live;” “Death ends a life not a relationship;” “As you grow you learn more; aging is not just decay….it’s growth;” “Love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.” “Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others.”
McHale creates a Morrie that seldom slides into “cuteness” which is too common when actors play older characters. It is easy to play the loveable, grumpy old man. McHale’s Schwartz most of the time seems realistic. The “feel good” statements seem to truly come from his lifetime of teaching and learning. They are not meant to make Albom feel better but to challenge him to live better.
Chis Richards as Albom has a role that can be tricky to play – from the self-absorbed and at times self-pitying younger man to the established “star” who has lost himself. You have to feel his slow awakening to what he has lost particularly emotionally by shutting unpleasant ideas out of his mind and heart. Richards only partially succeeds in doing this.
Director Sasha Brätt manages to use the large stage effectively even if we keep wishing it were more intimate.
This one act play, which runs about 90 minutes, certainly can remind all us of the importance of continued growth, learning and thought.
Tuesdays with Morrie is at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Harford, through Oct. 18. For tickets visit PlayhouseOnPark.org
or call 860-523-5900.