Aphorisms arrive fast and furiously in “Tuesdays With Morrie” at Theater J

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Cody Nickell, left, and Michael Russotto in “Tuesdays with Morrie” at Theater J.
Photo by Teresa Castracane

It’s not a spoiler alert to immediately note that Morrie Schwartz, the Brandeis University sociology professor who likes to give advice, dies at the end of “Tuesdays With Morrie”. Schwartz, the lovable teacher and mentor of Detroit Free Press sports reporter 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 hard love was best. way.

Albom’s little book – an account of his weekly visits to his ailing former professor suffering from the indignities of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) – made it big, spending four years on the New York bestseller list. York Times after its release in 1997. Later, Oprah Winfrey produced a TV movie version starring Jack Lemmon as Morrie and Hank Azaria as Mitch. In 2002, Albom developed “Tuesdays with Morrie” in a two-part play that achieved minimal off-Broadway success and in a 25-city tour.

He is now on stage at the J Theater until December 5th. As in his brief book, Albom follows his vibrant, outspoken and beloved former college professor as ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – deprives his body of the most basic pleasures and functions, of eating, reading, writing, dancing. and talk or even go to the bathroom without help.

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 laborious story. . The tearful tale of weekly visits to his dying friend has been transformed into a sharp portrayal of a self-centered sports reporter learning not how to die, but how to live. The 95-minute two-handed movie is a feel-good offering from Theater J at a time when most theaters returning from a forced 18-month pandemic hiatus are tackling the tough issues of the day with plays. sharp on loneliness, racism, social and environmental Justice.

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The first time around, Theater J director Jenna Place deftly leaves actors Michael Russotto (as effusive Morrie) and Cody Nickell (a silent Mitch) to uncover the sharp and witty banter between the two. She slowly allows the two men to realize how much they need each other: Morrie needs Mitch to learn his lessons about death, while Mitch needs Morrie to learn how to live.

All conversations take place on Debra Kim Sivigny’s intimate set with a daily desk including a desk and shelves (too artfully staged) flanking the space. A comfortable recliner and large tube TV are great touches. As the seasons play a role in the series of sightseeing Mitch makes, a magnificent tree with crimson leaves serves as a backdrop and speaks of Morrie’s equally vibrant career, but also indicates that his colorful life is in its final season. .

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Morrie refers to their Tuesdays together as his “last class” and Mitch as his only student. The writer records these weekly sessions to preserve the many aphorisms his teacher drops in their conversations as he answers Mitch’s questions about death, life, and the purpose of living a fulfilling life. Sometimes the aphorisms are so quick and furious that these conversations sound like a Buddhist life coaching session: “We only mourn our regrets if we live life the wrong way” and “Everyone knows they are going to die. , but no one believes it ”and“ We all run. We are the human race.

Even in the midst of tough times, co-playwrights Hatcher and Albom record Mitch’s growth under the tutelage of his teacher. Initially disgusted with facing a dying man, Mitch, at Morrie’s behest, slowly begins to understand what matters more than his career or his money.

While “Tuesdays With Morrie” plays smoothly and skillfully on the sensitive chords of its audience, the piece ultimately feels light, lacking in resonance and depth. The most moving moments are the silences between the words when Russotto and Nickell, the actors, connect deeply, both physically and emotionally. One of the most moving episodes in the book came 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 sports reporter.

Even with the script and rewrites Hatcher provided to Albom’s initial narration in the book, the play, like the book, doesn’t reach the pathetic. Therefore, the excellent finely tuned performances of Russotto and Nickell, as well as the responsive direction of Place, are the best part of “Tuesdays With Morrie”. Of course, the point is to leave viewers with tears in their eyes; surprisingly, handkerchiefs are not included with the program. And, alas, this admittedly jaded spectator did not even have his eyes cloudy. But if you’re a sweetheart who needs a good cry, “Tuesdays With Morrie” will suffice.

“Tuesdays With Morrie” by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, until December 5, at Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington, DC COVID-19 protocols include proof of vaccination and coin photo ID, mask wearing and option for socially distanced head offices on certain performances. Tickets from $ 35 to $ 70. Visit Theaterj.org or call 202-777-3210.

Mitch Albom will give an author talk on his latest book, “The Stranger in the Lifeboat”, at the DCJCC on November 30th at 7:30 pm. He will only answer the written questions provided in advance and sign his new book.


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