The refuseniks likely suspect Tuesdays of being a sentimental, possibly mawkish, tearjerker, and they’re not entirely wrong. What they’re missing, though, is the fierce intelligence and humanity of the central figure of this nonfiction work, Morrie Schwartz, a sociology professor at Brandeis University who’s busy dying of ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease — and who’s the kind of personality, talker, and thinker one’s lucky to encounter in this life.
They also might miss the rare conjunction of acting, directing and design artistry supplied by this Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre production, unless they hurry in.
By now, the outlines of this story might be familiar, since the 1997 memoir by Mitch Albom has sold more than 10 million copies and lays claim to being the best-selling memoir ever; the 1999 TV film adaptation starred Hank Azaria and, in his last credited performance, Jack Lemmon; and the 2002 stage version (by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, an estimable playwright) has been mounted frequently nationwide.
Briefly, Morrie (Earl Leininger), has given several interviews on the process and meaning of dying to Ted Koppel on Nightline. Mitch (Chris Allison), a favorite student of Morrie’s who had promised to stay in touch but had failed to do so for 16 years, sees the first interview and arranges to visit his old mentor on a Tuesday. Mitch was never going to be a sociologist — he and Morrie had hoped he would make his way as a jazz pianist.
Instead, Mitch became a sports journalist and television personality based in Detroit. Mitch is successful, and his life is an endless round of sporting events and reports on them, but when Morrie asks him to come again, Mitch ends up committing to returning every Tuesday, for what he calls his “last class” with Morrie, until Morrie’s dying day. Eventually, he brings along a tape recorder and a list of questions. Morrie’s responses, along with Mitch’s observations, and the effect each had on the other, are what Tuesdays with Morrie consists of.
That’s a simple enough set-up, and the substance is pretty much what you would expect: the difficulties Mitch has combining work and life, adequately addressing his own feelings, and becoming the kind of good man his former teacher would respect; Morrie’s deep and wise acceptance of his approaching demise, the physical and emotional difficulties attendant upon it, and his need and desire to remain a teacher even though his illness has forced him to retire to the confines of his home.
What elevates the evening beyond a self-help manual and, say, Chicken Soup for the Soul, is the tart reality of Mitch and Morrie: well-meaning Mitch is not always an appealing or helpfully responsive guy — it takes a very long time for him to be able to cope properly with Morrie’s increasing incapacitation or to feel and express affection; and Morrie, though an old softie, is also a hardheaded, painfully observant, demanding critic with the tart tongue and arch demeanor of a Borsht Belt comedian.
None of the strengths of the play, however, would be available to the audience if Mitch and Morrie weren’t embodied by superlative actors unerringly committed to their roles. Fortunately, the SART production has been exceptionally well cast. Both Allison and Leininger bring deep humanity and complexity to their portraits, and know how to take even the most difficult moments — mostly relating to Morrie’s astonishingly well-rendered physical decline — and infuse them with the specificity and hard-won emotion that turn what could be saccharine into something truly moving and thought-provoking.
In this, they have been well-aided by director James Thomas, founder of SART who was wisely brought back for this special occasion. The design team at SART has also done its usual superlative job, creating just the right environment in which Mitch and Morrie can wrestle with themselves, their problems, and each other, very much to the benefit of the rest of us.
You may think you don’t want to see this play. But you’ll be surprisingly glad if you do.
Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom, adapted by Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by James Thomas. Set Design: Richard Seagle. Lighting Design: Robert C. Berls. Costume Design: Deborah Austin. Sound Design: Jeffrey Silverman. Production Manager: Richard Seagle. Stage Manager: Joan Childress Wilkerson. With Earl Leininger (Morrie) and Chris Allison (Mitch).
Play runs through Sunday, July 18. http://sartplays.org/