It’s not a spoiler to note up front that Morrie Schwartz, the Brandeis University sociology professor who loves giving advice, dies at the end of “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Schwartz, the lovable, huggable prof and mentor to Detroit Free Press sportswriter Mitch Albom, his former student, was a master teacher — the kind who knew when and how to break the rules and use kindness or when tough love was the better route.
Albom’s small book — an account of his weekly visits to his ailing former professor suffering the indignities of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) — made it big, spending four years on the New York Times bestseller list after its release in 1997. Later Oprah Winfrey produced a TV movie version featuring Jack Lemmon as Morrie and Hank Azaria as Mitch. In 2002, Albom developed “Tuesdays with Morrie” into a two-man play that attained a modicum of success Off-Broadway and in a 25-city tour.
It is now on stage at Theater J through Dec. 5. As in his brief book, Albom follows his vibrant, outspoken and beloved former college prof as ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – robs his body of most basic pleasures and functions, from eating, reading, writing, dancing and talking, to even using the toilet unaided.
Albom teamed up with stage and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (author of “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” “Korcak’s Children” and an adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” among others) to reshape the plodding story. The maudlin account of weekly visits to his dying friend were transformed into a pointed portrait of a self-centered sports reporter learning not how to die, but how to live. The 95-minute two-hander is a feel-good offering from Theater J at a time when most theaters back from an 18-month forced pandemic hiatus are addressing the tough issues of the day with trenchant plays on loneliness, racism, social and environmental justice.
First time Theater J director Jenna Place adeptly lets actors Michael Russotto (as an effusive Morrie) and Cody Nickell (a taciturn Mitch) discover the crisp, witty banter between the two men. She slowly allows the two men to realize how much they need each other: Morrie needs Mitch to learn his lessons in dying, while Mitch needs Morrie to learn how to live.
All the conversations take place on Debra Kim Sivigny’s homey set with a workaday study featuring a desk and (too artfully staged) bookshelves flanking the space. A cozy recliner and a large tube TV are great touches. As seasons play a role in the series of visits Mitch makes, a gorgeous crimson-leafed tree serves as a backdrop and speaks to the equally vibrant career of Morrie, but also indicates that his colorful life is in its final season.
Morrie refers to their Tuesdays together as his “last class” and Mitch his only pupil. The writer records these weekly sessions to preserve the many aphorisms his professor drops into their conversations as he answers Mitch’s questions about dying, living and the purpose of living a fulfilled life. At times the aphorisms come so fast and furious these conversations resemble a Buddhist life-coaching session: “We only cry over regrets if we live life the wrong way” and “Everybody knows they’re going to die, but no one believes it” and “We’re all running. We are the human race.”
Even amid the treacly moments, co-playwrights Hatcher and Albom record Mitch’s growth under his teacher’s tutelage. Initially squeamish at facing a dying man, Mitch, at Morrie’s urging, slowly begins to understand what matters more than his career or money.
While “Tuesdays With Morrie” sweetly and deftly plays on its audiences’ heartstrings, ultimately the play feels light, lacking resonance and depth. The most moving moments are the silences between the words when Russotto and Nickell, the actors, deeply connect, both physically and emotionally. One of the most moving episodes in the book was when Mitch massaged Morrie’s feet, a simple but profound gift to a dying man facing paralysis. On stage, Mitch learns to hug and kiss a man, and even shed a tear — apparently a tough road for a macho sportswriter.
Even with the script doctoring and rewrites Hatcher provided to Albom’s initial storytelling in the book, the play, like the book, doesn’t reach pathos. Therefore, the excellent, finely attuned performances of Russotto and Nickell, along with the sensitive direction by Place, are the best part of “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Of course, the point is to leave viewers teary eyed; surprisingly tissues are not supplied with the program. And, alas, this admittedly jaded viewer didn’t even get misty eyed. But if you’re a softie in need of a good cry, “Tuesdays With Morrie” will suffice.
“Tuesdays With Morrie” by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, through Dec. 5, at Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington, D.C. COVID-19 protocols include proof of vaccination and photo ID, mask wearing, and the option for socially distanced seating on certain performances. Tickets $35-$70. Visit theaterj.org or call 202- 777-3210.
Mitch Albom will give an author talk on his newest book, “The Stranger in the Lifeboat,” at the DCJCC on Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. He will only answer written questions provided in advance and will sign his new book.