Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2009
"Death ends a life, not a relationship."
- Morrie Schwartz
And writing, reading, reciting, reenacting, gives humans the illusion that a relationship has some measure of “immortality” – look at the annual rituals of any organized religion.
In the mid-1990’s portswriter Mitch Albom collaborated with his former Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz during the last year of Schwartz’s life on a book about the meanings and qualities of life, death, and human memory. Its purpose was to help pay Schwartz’s medical bills – he was dying rapidly of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – and the men hoped the sales of the book would alleviate the financial burden on Schwartz’s wife and two sons.
The book, Tuesdays With Morrie, was published in 1997 and as near as I can tell there are now more than 11 million copies in print worldwide.
It turned out that Morrie Schwartz had a lot to say about life, the universe, and everything, and he said it very well – or at least he did through Albom’s pen. But Albom also told the story of two straight men, unrelated by birth or marriage, who openly loved and admired one another – a form of love closer to agape than philia and containing no eros. Men don’t tell these stories, and certainly no about themselves. The raw openness of both Schwartz and Albom’s words are what caused such a fervent ardor in the reading public.
So how do you translate almost a year of in depth discussion into ninety minutes of quality stage time? Albom cleverly aligned himself with Jeffrey Hatcher, a popular and successful playwright whose work has been widely produced in the Berkshires and beyond. Hatcher is not verbose, his forte is the short, poignant piece, and here he has helped Albom get to the quick of things quickly.
The resulting play is gripping and moving, but the word here is dense. Albom’s book was already a masterful condensation of months of taped conversations, here further condensed the story becomes like a brilliant sun compacted down into a white dwarf – nothing but a dense mass of energy.
Two actors, both on stage almost all the time, must provide the energy, and the audience must absorb it. The actor playing Morrie must also simulate the progress of this devastating disease while articulating Morrie Schwartz’s Greatest Hits. And here is the biggest problem with this script. While Albom tells us that Morrie said all these wise and wonderful things, he certainly didn’t say them all in ninety minutes. This particular aspect of the condensation of the material makes Morrie seem impossibly wise, witty, and glib – even when in dire pain and clinging to consciousness. It strains credibility and is a great burden on the actor.
The Town Players are a community theatre group and so here Mitch and Morrie are played by amateur actors Jon Slocum and Peter Podol, under the direction of John Trainor, a man whose long and distinguished career in regional theatre lifts him considerably above amateur status. This threesome worked together in 2007 on a Town Players production of Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr. Green, a play in which Trainor, coincidentally, played the title role this past summer at the Theater Barn – another play that tells the story of the relationship between a younger man and an older man over the course of a series of weekly visits (if I remember correctly their meeting day was Thursday.)
I know that this reunion of actors and director to work on similar material – although Tuesdays With Morrie is a FAR better play – has been meaningful and rewarding, and this real-life philia between the men is what makes this production work. For every moment of amateur awkwardness, there are a half dozen quiet miracles of connectedness and empathy that make it all worthwhile.
My favorite moment was during a scene change late in the play, where Trainor has Slocum lift the immobile Podol up out of a chair and hold him in a tight embrace while a hospital bed is brought on. This is played in half-light, but I could not take my eyes off the image of the actors embracing, and then of Slocum tenderly lowering Podol on to the bed for Morrie’s final scene.
Slocum manages a uniform energy and presents a coherent and believable portrait of Mitch, the driven, lonely young man. But Podol, who is called on to continuously rein in and diminish his energy as the disease saps Morrie’s life and strength, is unable to keep his energy level consistent. One moment he is limp and lifeless and the next he is smiling and quipping eloquently. One moment he asks for help to turn his head and the next moment his neck swivels effortlessly to follow Slocum around the stage. These inconsistencies are what put this production squarely into the “Good Amateur Effort” category when it had the potential to soar far about that realm.
The set is a shabby monstrosity. I would rather have seen the show performed on a bare stage than with those funereal black flats awkwardly piled around the stage. The production desperately needed color – not bright hot colors but a few cool pastels and some warm, manly browns and greens – effects that could easily and inexpensively been created with a little paint, a few added costume elements, and some imagination.
The Town Players of Pittsfield production of Tuesdays With Morrie will be presented on January 23rd and 24th and 30th and 31st at 8pm and on February 1st at 2pm at Pittsfield High School, 300 East Street Pittsfield, MA. The show runs ninety minutes with no intermission and is suitable for older teens and up.
Tickets are $15 for reserved seating, with $12 tickets available for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. To make a reservation, please call The Town Players at (413) 443-9279 or email your request to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about this production, upcoming production or information on how to become a part of The Town Players, please visit the website at www.townplayers.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009