Mitch Albom wrote Tuesdays with Morrie in 1997 as a memoir, recording the wisdom he drew from his former sociology professor, who befriended him during his matriculation at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. It took Albom 16 years to get back to Morrie Schwartz; in the interim, his professor had contracted Lou Gehrig’s Disease, otherwise known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). The disease effects the brain and spinal column and is 100 percent fatal.
Albom combined his talents as a writer with those of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher to write the stage play of the work, called Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. It is a two-man show, and in the version presented by the PlayMakers Repertory Company, it has a minimalist set which leaves most of Paul Green Theater’s thrust stage clear. The play’s director, professor/director/actress Joan Darling, eliminates most of the trappings of a realistic set to leave the space clear for the abundance of truth that Mitch learns from Morrie in the professor’s “final class.” Having re-established the affectionate relationship that existed during school, Mitch (PRC company member Estes Tarver) agrees to return to Waltham, MA, each Tuesday to visit with Morrie (guest artist Greg Mullavey)—“until the end.”
What Mitch learns from these visits, each one longer than the last, is the profound truth that one amazing mind turns on an insolvable problem: that of its own death. But what Morrie tells Mitch, and us, is that impending death does not devalue life; quite the opposite. It makes each day precious. Morrie has learned—and tries to teach Mitch—that the business of life is people, and that the “only rational act” is to love. “We must love each other or die,” he says, reminding Mitch that if he is not busy living, he is busy dying.
Director Joan Darling is with Morrie; she relays in the program that this play is about a lot of things, but the one thing it is not about is death. This is confirmed in scene and costume designer McKay Coble’s set. It is as much about what we don’t see as what we do. We do not see the omnipresent hospital bed, oxygen tank, medicines, nurse; we do see Morrie’s beloved red maple, his easy chair, his old-style but still happy home. Darling even goes so far as to replace Morrie’s wheelchair—highly evident on the program cover—with a rolling office chair, far more like what Morrie was comfortable in at Brandeis. Other essentials--Mitch’s work desk, his automobile, the telephone, even Morrie’s library—are dropped from above as needed. It is a skilled and effective means of removing the obvious to make way for the not-so-obvious: the truth inherent in Morrie’s observations on his life, and life in general.
Estes Tarver makes an effective sounding board in Mitch. He reveals Mitch’s ability to listen—an asset in a journalist—and keeps Mitch’s mind open. He is also self-deprecating, giving Mitch a real need to hear what his mentor has to say, and act on it. He also gives Mitch a highly appropriate lopsided grin that is quite endearing.
Greg Mullavey plays Morrie not as a man bound by physical limitations, but as a man freed in a mind that is still quite active and precocious. He relates how a man, in the latter years of life, becomes more childlike and accepting of help; and he wonders out loud why men seem to pretend that is true at the beginning and the end, but not in the middle, of life. Mullavey is the quintessential professor. He lays a foundation, springs the trap, and then explains what it is he means. It is a method highly effective in training; we learn from our mistakes. Mullavey accelerates his disease subtly, so that even when he has reached the last stages of a ferocious malady, we are not totally aware of the impact on this lively mind until Mitch reveals that Morrie is now quite paralyzed.
PRC’s Tuesdays with Morrie is a highly effective, dynamic, and moving show, and it is lovingly recreated by this cast and director. It relates truths we already know in a more palatable fashion, with easy humor and love, so that we can more easily allow ourselves to accept them. It is not only a tribute to a beloved mentor; it is also an effective and insightful guide to living life. We have all heard it before, but when it is given us in such an intimate fashion, we are somehow much more likely to give it heed.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie Tuesday-Wednesday, Nov. 21-22, at 8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, Nov. 24-25, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 26, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Nov. 28-Dec. 2 and Dec. 5-9, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 3 and 10, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theater in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or click here [inactive 8/07]. Note 1: There will be post-show discussions Nov. 22nd and 26th. Note: 2: There will be $7.50 per student educational matinees, followed by group discussion between students and members of the cast and artistic staff, at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 29th and Dec. 5th and 7th. (For details, telephone 919/962-2491 or visit http://www.playmakersrep.org/ genPage/index.pl?pgid=17 [inactive 8/07].) Note 3: There will be an all-access performance Dec. 5th, with Braille and large-print programs; audio description provided by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://artsaccessinc.org/); and sign-language interpretation available in addition to the assisted listening system and wheelchair seating that PRC offers at each performance. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/ [inactive 8/07]. Joan Darling: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=80271 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0201375/ (Internet Movie Database).