Story: Encouraged by his Uncle Mike, Mitch grew up wanting to be a jazz pianist. After college and briefly dabbling in his desired profession, however, he ends up in journalism. He does pretty well at it, too, as an ambitious sports reporter who eventually nabs a regular column for a daily newspaper as well as radio and TV opportunities that fuel the self-centered writer.
One night while watching TV he sees a story on Nightline about Morrie Schwartz, a former teacher of his at Brandeis University who now is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mitch contacts Morrie, 16 years after he graduated from Brandeis, finally remembering his long-neglected promise to stay in touch with his sociology professor. That begins what becomes a weekly visit with his mentor, as Mitch becomes a student of life in the home of his beloved and dying teacher.
Highlights: The autobiographical book by journalist Mitch Albom was converted by Albom and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher into a two-character, one-act play that opened off-Broadway in 2002, three years after Jack Lemmon won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Morrie in a TV adaptation. The subject matter is tough to confront, but it’s made buoyant by the infectious humor of the self-deprecating Morrie.
In the hands of capable professionals, Tuesdays with Morrie can transcend what otherwise could be a manipulative tear-jerker. That’s notably the case with the current presentation by Dramatic License Productions, which features a pair of affecting performances by Bobby Miller and Aaron Orion Baker under the nurturing eye of director John Contini.
Other Info: Contini carefully contrasts the hard edges of Albom’s character with the warmth and wit of Schwartz’s role through the well modulated performances of Baker and Miller, who complement each other with their natural grace and style. There’s a gentle pace to the proceedings, too, that keeps the work moving smoothly.
Miller, who has achieved greatness in a variety of roles on stage for several decades, makes this presentation sing with expert comic timing. His deadpan delivery of Morrie’s wry observations leaven proceedings that otherwise could prove heavy with grief and overwhelming doom.
That deft touch with humor makes Morrie’s alarming but poignant physical decline all the more affecting, which Miller graphically emphasizes with a breathing exercise that becomes increasingly arduous.
Baker works well as the somewhat selfish Mitch, although the character as written is just a bit too overbearing to gain much empathy. Baker’s own strong likability quotient, though, and his chemistry with Miller combine to make Mitch more tolerable and an obvious source of pride and care for his fading mentor.
Costume designer Lisa Hazelhorst does good work moving Miller’s wardrobe from slacks and slippers to pajamas as Morrie’s condition deteriorates, while Baker’s Mitch is handsomely attired throughout
Max Parilla’s lighting and Joseph Pini’s sound design support the quaint set designed by Scott Schoonover, which features Mitch’s piano at stage right, Morrie’s home office at stage left and his self-described antiquated living room in the center. Props designer Peggy Knock adds appropriate family photos at either end of the stage as well as a period-piece tape recorder and other accoutrements.
Miller’s performance in the title role is actually better than one I saw at The Rep a few years back. That kind of power and persuasion can bring out the finest aspects of even a sobering subject such as Tuesdays with Morrie.
Play: Tuesdays with Morrie
Company: Dramatic License Productions
Venue: Dramatic License Theatre, upper level, Chesterfield Mall
Dates: November 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17
Tickets: $18-$25; contact 636-220-7012 or www.DramaticLicenseProductions.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb