Mitch Albom was a successful sports journalist, but he's now better known as the best-selling author of books including The Five People You Will Meet in Heaven. But the work that really put him on the map was Tuesdays with Morrie. I read this in 1997 when it first came out, and although I remember liking it, I don't remember much about it. Albom seemed to be an author that could evoke our emotions, but I didn’t remember many details.
And maybe this is why I like the stage version much better. With a script written by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, I have a much easier time understanding the challenges of friendship and illness than I did from reading the book. Sometimes emotionally heavy situations work better on the stage than the page, and I think this is one of those times.
Produced by the A.D. Players at The George Theater, you really could not ask for better casting than Jake Speck (making his acting debut at this theater—where he is also the executive director) and the wonderful veteran actor Kevin Cooney, who plays the character of Morrie Schwartz with aplomb, and, impressively, humor—which is really saying something in a play that focuses so much on death.
The staging and scenic design (Kevin Rigdon) are perfect—as in all you need is a believable living room for Morrie, Mitch’s beloved sociology professor, and Mitch, his long lost but returned student, to hang out and catch up, and as Morrie’s degenerative illness progresses, figure out what is important in life.
As the play expands from Mitch’s memories of Morrie when he was in college, to a traumatic loss of Mitch’s uncle who shared his love of music, we can see the relationships between what we lose and what we have to hold onto. Morrie was temporarily forgotten in Mitch’s life, but their reconnection in the midst of Morrie’s struggle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) makes the 16 years they had not been in touch recede. I marveled at the realization that such conversations really are the most important thing we share with other people—nothing material, but something concrete, memorable, and worthy of having before we have no more time.
As director Jennifer Dean explains in her note to the audience, her aim is “to help lead the audience to answer the question ‘are you doing what you can with the time you have left?’” As Mitch reveals his addiction to ambition, his decision to abandon jazz piano in search of something else, and his reticence to start a family as one “has to give up” so many other things, Morrie’s wisdom, not just from sociology, but from a lifetime of real concern for his students, you cannot help but apply some truth serum to your own life, even if it is a hard task.
Jake Speck captures Mitch’s mix of bravado and uncertainty, in a way that is engaging but not over the top, which makes sense for a character who has trouble expressing feelings and emotions—although this situation will improve as Morrie’s health declines. Kevin Cooney plays Morrie as wise but kind, knowledgeable without being pedantic, optimistic without being saccharin. It is, I imagine, harder than it looks to play this kind of part, since irony and snark dominate so much of contemporary drama. It is refreshing to witness conversations between two men that actually add up to something—and in a way that is not superficial or beyond belief. Since this drama is based on a true story, it makes it all the more poignant.
“Sentimental,” in literary and film criticism, is often a dirty word, a direct signal that something is sappy and therefore not worthy of real critique. But that is the wrong way to think about it. Sentimentality has been the hallmark of much great literature, and works devoid of it often leave the audience cold and hollow, with too much of a cerebral experience going on to really connect to the issues at hand. Here, your emotional response to Mitch’s neglect, Morrie’s forgiveness, and then their increasing closeness in the midst of a terminal illness is exactly what leads you to the big questions, and the notion that people, and, really little else, are what's really important in life.
And what makes this even better is that this show is suitable for all ages—engaging from the first scene to the last, with a huge, beautiful Japanese maple tree in the background reminding everyone that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, even after it is gone.
Thru Feb. 10. Tickets from $35. A.D. Players, 5420 Westheimer Rd. 713-526-2721. More info and tickets at adplayers.org.