Story: It’s been 16 years since renowned sports columnist Mitch Albom has contacted Morrie Schwartz, his sociology professor at Brandeis University. Albom had taken as many classes taught by Schwartz as he could before graduating and moving to New York City to pursue a career as a jazz pianist.
That dream changed abruptly when Albom’s beloved Uncle Mike, near whose family Albom lived as a young pianist, died at age 42. Albom chucked the music, went to graduate school in journalism and became a noted columnist in Detroit, covering the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Olympics and other major sporting events.
One night while channel surfing he sees Schwartz interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline. Schwartz is suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and caught the attention of Koppel when a friend of Schwartz sent Morrie’s aphorisms about living and dying to the newsman.
Albom calls Schwartz out of the blue and immediately is recognized by the prof, who enjoyed being called “Coach” by his gifted student. The columnist flies to Massachusetts on a Tuesday to visit Schwartz and, after some awkward moments caused by the younger man’s impatience and self-absorption, he continues weekly visits as Schwartz physically deteriorates from the ravages of the disease.
Morrie’s mind and heart, though, remain as vibrant as ever as he teaches his greatest lesson to Mitch.
Highlights: New Jewish Theatre begins its 21st season with an affecting rendition of the stage version of Albom’s best-selling book, anchored by an endearing performance by Jim Anthony as the amiable professor and Andrew Michael Neiman as his tempestuous but ultimately loyal student.
Other Info: Albom co-wrote this one-act, 75-minute stage adaptation with Jeffrey Hatcher in 2002, five years after the book was published. The current production at New Jewish Theatre utilizes a clever set designed by Christie Johnston which is focused on an off-kilter bookcase at the rear of Morrie’s den in his simple home.
The one-room scenic design is accentuated with props such as a black rotary phone provided by Sarah Azizo. “You and my wheelchair are the newest things in this room,” says Morrie with a smile at one point to Mitch. In the background is an image of barren trees until the final scene, when shedding leaves are shown, all carefully illuminated by lighting designer Michael Sullivan. A piece of furniture which doubles as a piano where Neiman sits to emulate Jeffrey Carter’s musical recordings, a bed, a coffee table and a couple of chairs fill out the set.
Amanda Werre adds a complementary sound design, while Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes effectively delineate Morrie’s steadily declining condition.
Director Anna Pileggi shrewdly incorporates the breadth of the stage to show at first the chasm between Mitch and Morrie, then allows their distance to shrink as the young man slowly begins to appreciate the wisdom of his mentor. Pileggi also provides a beautiful juxtaposition of Neiman at the piano at stage right while Anthony renders Morrie’s omnipresent dance moves at stage left.
Anthony crafts a remarkable and ingratiating performance as the afflicted Morrie, who won’t allow the limitations of his body to conquer his life-affirming spirit. He delivers Morrie’s sage advice and observations not in condescension but with understanding and tenderness, and he shares an affecting chemistry with Neiman as the obstinate Albom, all the while subtly conveying the older man’s decline.
Neiman demonstrates the explosive nature of Albom’s capricious personality, showing how the wealthy, famous writer won’t let go of the injustices he believes were thrust upon him unfairly, simultaneously oblivious to the terminal condition of his partner in conversation.
While Neiman convincingly conveys the younger man’s eventual understanding and appreciation for what his mentor has accomplished in dying as well as in living, it comes across just a bit too conveniently for a writer who is driven to the extreme in his quest to be the best, regardless of the price. That attitude is salvaged somewhat, however, by the endearing final scene.
There’s much to admire in this presentation of Tuesdays with Morrie, which has a message worth hearing any day of the week.
Play: Tuesdays with Morrie
Company: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: October 11, 12, 14, 15, 18, 19, 21, 22
Tickets: $39-$44; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.