Through clever staging “Tuesdays With Morrie” becomes a heady meditation on death
Reviewed by Kat Fournier
March 12, 2016 Saturday at 6:53 pm
Photo: director John P. Kelly
In a sense, Tuesdays With Morrie is a “prodigical son” story but from the eyes of the son. Based on the New York Times bestselling book by the same title, this is the theatrical adaptation penned by original author Mitch Albom along with Jeffrey Hatcher. After Albom leaves college and his beloved teacher, Morrie Schwartz, he falls into a pace of life that conflicts with the spirited world-view that Schwartz embodied. Sixteen years later, Albom chances on his former mentor by chance and learns that he has been diagnosed with ALS. Albom starts a reluctant pilgrimage to Schwartz’s house for a series of fourteen Tuesdays that end up being a catalyst for Albom’s own personal transformation.
A memoir by design, this production is more than a translation from one medium to another. Director John P. Kelly uses the stage to shift the raw, emotional story at the heart of the text to be a meditation on the value of love, the imminence of death, and the possibility of personal growth. Kelly asks his audience to look at Albom and Schwartz’s story at a distance. Where the original story presents a collection of Tuesdays and adjacent memories in a fairly straight-forward way, the staging in this production borrows from Bertolt Brecht with its exposed scene changes, even going so far as to have the stage-hand entering the playing space to hand characters props, or move chairs for them. The set design (David Magladry) shows a light touch, in keeping with Kelly’s Brechtian approach to the script. A double book case on tracks opens to allow set-changes to happen right in front of our eyes, for example.
On one hand, these elements endow the story with a constructed, memory-like atmosphere (in keeping with the fact that this is, actually, a product of Albom’s romanticized remembrance). On the other hand, this is a nudge from Kelly to not become emotionally invested at the expense of meaning. These types of meta-theatrical tactics typically function to keep the audience in a critical frame of mind by not giving us the opportunity to get sucked into a realistic portrayal of the stage world. Here, ideas of the certainty of death and how we evaluate our accomplishments are given space to bubble to the surface.
The strategy of distancing the audience from the emotional pull of the script is quite welcome. Albom’s script is at times heavy-handed, laying into Schwartz’s quick physical decay and contrasting it with Albom’s personal awakening. It’s no easy task to try to distil someone’s inspiring presence for an audience so that we, too, find Albom’s mentor equally inspiring. By choosing to approach the script through a distancing lens, the audience has the opportunity to access the themes that lie below the surface of Albom’s story.
That it keeps its audience at arms length does not take away from the emotional pull of the story. Albom and Schwartz’s loving relationship is cast in a warm glow that will leave you in a puddle. Actors Tom Charlebois and David Whiteley as Schwartz and Albom respectively, portray a really special bond. Albom begins the production distracted by a career as a sports journalist where competition trumps personal growth, and where the sharks are nipping at his heels. He is closed off, self-absorbed, and shuts doors to his passions as a means of survival. Schwartz’s illness becomes a trigger to him to realize his own humanity, and Whiteley portrays that slow opening with self-restraint, and then great power. Charlebois, too, is a pleasure to watch. An apt Schwartz, Charlebois approaches the characterization of the character with easy joy, a loving disposition, and deeply sensitive nature. The physical work of portraying Schwartz’s decaying physical capacity, and the emotional turns that come along with the illness, are no easy feat and Charlebois is seamlessly Schwartz. At times, Charlebois sinks into a distinct vocal cadence when delivering “words of wisdom” that feels forced, but this could be in keeping with the fact that, in this stage world, Schwartz is a figment of Albom’s imagination.
There is a moment on stage—the final goodbye—that shows just how far Whiteley went to realize this bond. During what may be their final visit, the floodgates of emotion open so that he is wailing on stage. It is so very human; in that moment the heart of this play is revealed. Here, we are no longer at a distance – perhaps a reflection of Albom’s own personal distancing survival mechanism – but we are right there with them, experiencing the very real love and very real pain of losing one’s mentor.
It isn’t Schwartz’s story, really, though that may be clear if we really consider the play’s title: Tuesdays with Schwartz (the name in Hebrew literally means “my teacher”). It’s Albom’s story, and a meditation on the impact of Schwartz on his life. The text positions Schwartz as the catalyst for Albom’s self-reflection. Schwartz is a narrative device, really. Yet, there are scenes that indulge in the portrayal of the illness. For example, there is a scene where it is only Schwartz onstage, in his bed, and he is alone, struggling to find a satisfying breath through a coughing fit. It is painful to watch, and a brutal moment for the audience who become voyeurs of Schwartz’s illness in that moment. I wonder if indulging in Schwartz’s illness in this way is necessary. I question the harmony of these elements of the play with Albom’s story which is a personal memoir writ large.
This production is a pleasure to witness, and an opportunity for audiences to experience Kelly’s clever mind at work on an already powerful story. This story can easily be indulgent and emotive, but here it is treated with restraint. This restraint is born of a clear reverence for the ideas that arise through Albom’s story, and its impact is ever-more touching for it.
Tuesdays With Morrie plays at The Gladstone Theatre until March 19, 2016.
Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher – Playwrights
John P Kelley – Director
Produced by Seven Thirty Productions and Plosive Productions
David Whiteley – Mitch Albom
Tom Charlebois – Morrie Schwartz
Jess Preece – Stage Manager
Steven Lafond – Composer and Sound Design
David Magladry – Set and Lighting Design
Patrice-Anne Forbes – Costume Design
Fiona Currie – Projection Design
Steve Martin – Choreography