April 13, 2024

An Uplifting Visit to "Tuesdays with Morrie"

It’s being an unusually busy theater season this spring with a baker’s dozen of Broadway shows still scheduled to open between now and the end of the month. So it’s no surprise that smaller shows—even very good ones— might get lost in the crush. And they don’t come much smaller than Tuesdays with Morrie, a two-hander based on journalist Mitch Albom’s 1997 bestseller about the life lessons Albom drew from a series of weekly visits with Morrie Schwartz, his former college professor who was dying from ALS, the horrible degenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The memoir topped The New York Times nonfiction list for nearly half a year and, like millions of others, I read it and was deeply moved by the mutually-sustaining friendship between the two men as the older man figured out how to die with grace and the younger how to live with purpose. 

The book was turned into a TV movie in 1999 with Hank Azaria as Mitch and Jack Lemmon as Morrie. A few years later, Albom teamed up with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher for a stage version that ran at the Minetta Lane Theatre for 112 performances with Jon Tenney as Mitch and Alvin Epstein as Morrie. 

I didn’t see either of those versions. But a new company called Sea Dog Theater revived the show last month and I finally caught up with it last week. This time around Mitch is played by Sea Dog's co-founder and artistic director Christopher J. Domig and Morrie is played by the invaluable Broadway vet Len Cariou.

Their production is a bare bones affair. It’s staged in a chapel room at St. George’s Episcopal Church, a lovely old 19th century Romanesque building on East 16th Street. The set consists primarily of a piano (Albom initially set out to be a jazz pianist) and a wheelchair. There isn't much drama; even if you don’t know the book or movie, it’s obvious that Morrie is going to die. Yet, to my surprise, I found myself deeply moved all over again. 

That response wasn't a sure thing because I had all kinds of worries going in to see the show. The first is that although the chapel at St. George’s is beautiful, its acoustics aren’t great, particularly during the early exchanges between the actors. But as they drew nearer to the audience and my ear adjusted that proved less of a problem. 

I also wondered if Cariou was strong enough to make it through such an arduous role. He entered the chapel slowly, leaning heavily on a cane on one side and the arm of a young assistant on the other before grabbing onto the piano for support before the show began. But although Carious, who is now 84, may no longer be as spry as he was when he won the Tony for playing the title character in the original 1979 production of Sweeney Todd, his acting chops are still supple.

Under Erwin Maas’ deft direction, Cariou sidesteps the story's innate sentimentality and makes Morrie a real person, portraying him as cranky sometimes, fearful at others but always determined to live whatever life remains to the fullest. It’s an impressive performance and it’s nicely balanced by Domig's. (click here to read more about their collaboration).

But frankly what I worried about most was seeing re-created the sections in the book that deal in graphic detail with Morrie’s declining physical abilities. But Albom and Hatcher’s text focuses more on the metaphysical: the beauties of love and friendship and art. What I feared might be depressing turned out to be totally uplifting. Tuesdays with Morrie is only running for one more week.  Seek it out if you can.

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