A quick glance at the storyline might suggest that Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher’s Tuesdays with Morrie is cornier than Kansas in mid-July: Young man strikes up friendship with a professor; young man lets the friendship slide when he ventures out into the big world; no-longer-young man, now a career-obsessed sports journalist, reunites with terminally ill professor and learns life-altering lessons.
That the play is based on Albom’s own story – first released as a memoir of the same name and then as a television movie starring Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria before finally coming to the stage in 2002 – may do little to change cynical first impressions.
But to reduce the play and its current, finely tuned production at The Gladstone to a saccharine-sounding summary would be doing both a serious disservice.
Directed by John P. Kelly with sensitivity and his customary attention to detail and pacing, this SevenThirty Productions show features Tom Charlebois as Morrie Schwartz, a joyous, warm-hearted and truth-seeking sociology professor, and David Whiteley as Mitch Albom, the blinkered and emotionally constipated younger man.
The crux of the play resides in Morrie’s being stricken with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) some time before Mitch initiates the reunion that turns into regular Tuesday visits to the older man’s home. To watch the garrulous, life-loving Morrie going from walker to wheelchair to bed as the disease progresses is as heart-wrenching as Mitch’s gradually escaping the prison of his own, tamped-down existence is affirming.
Intimate, gently humorous, respectful of both Morrie and Mitch and the human condition, the production, of which David Magladry’s set and excellent lighting design is no small part, lets the story tell itself while guiding us to invest heavily in these two characters. Charlebois in particular gives a nuanced performance, his character an invigorating mix of intellect and empathy to the last.
Tuesdays with Morrie reminds us of things at once elemental and profound. The importance of love and forgiveness. How friendship can give the lie to death. That the human touch can help salve the harshest pain. Things, as Morrie always knew and as Mitch learns in the nick of time, that make life not merely bearable but rich and rewarding.