If there's one overarching message to be gleaned from Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie, playing at A.D. Players through February 10, it's this: it's OK for guys to show their feelings. Go ahead, weep. It shows you're alive, you're human. And don't forget to touch. That's OK, too. You're most alive when tears flow, when you embrace another, when you forego eons of emotional suppression and let go. It's part of living, and definitely part of dying.
Albom's simple tale is a Hallmark card writ large. Not that there is anything wrong with that. A slap in the face with life's elemental verities is always welcome. Now that Necco's candy Valentine Sweethearts have been discontinued this year, where will we find life's uplifting messages? Twitter doesn't cut it. Albom has the cure.
Morrie Schwartz (a sparkly Kevin Cooney), a beloved sociologist professor at Brandeis, mentors hard nut student Mitch (A.D. executive director Jake Speck) on Tuesdays after class. They form a deep bond. As Morrie says, I'm the teacher, ask me questions. Jake does, in his fashion.
Once Mitch graduates, his life takes a surprising upturn. And although he promises Morrie to keep in touch with his favorite teacher, he doesn't. Life happens, so he says. Along the path to success, Mitch has dropped all he ever learned from Morrie. Happiness has fallen by the wayside.
Sixteen years later, now a successful sports writer, radio and TV host, Mitch is riddled with remorse, once he learns Morrie is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease. Morrie's been featured on Ted Kopple's Nightline as a beloved face of how to die gracefully. Mitch screws up the courage to visit him after all these years, and the play's thesis begins in earnest when he drops in to assuage his guilt, thinking a one-time visit will be enough. He doesn't remember Morrie's seductiveness. Since he still has issues, as Morrie knows, Mitch is drawn ineluctably to Morrie's side. There are issues to be confronted and solved.
Until Morrie's death, Mitch visits every Tuesday, as he did as an undergrad at Brandeis. His defenses crumble with each subsequent meeting. During the scene breaks, Morrie is moved by Mitch and stagehands as he becomes ever more feeble and completely bedridden. Mitch's whiny little prig slowly erodes under the gnomic optimism of his former teacher. Morrie speaks in aphorisms, like Yoda, only the force he speaks of is one of inner peace, forgiveness, and giving of yourself. His pronouncements are basic as hell – Dr. Phil on steroids – but still meaningful.
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With these two pros on stage, Mitch's cracking is loud and terribly affecting, as is Morrie's gradual deterioration. You can hear the sniffling wafting through the audience during this one-acter, growing more intense by the end. It's hard not to be moved by the shameless manipulation, except you're also moved by the exceptionally humane message – go after life, even when dying. Do not go gentle, Morrie advises with his inevitable twilight twinkle, embrace life, be your best, listen to others, love yourself.
Adroitly adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty, numerous Columbo episodes, Casanova, and theater adaptations of Gogol's Government Inspector, Balzak's Cousin Bette, Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) from Mitch Albom’s phenomenal feel-good best-seller and made-for-TV movie, Tuesdays is elemental “I'm OK, You're OK” that still packs a wallop today. Mitch reveals his inner Morrie, while Morrie grows stronger the more he weakens. I defy any flint-hearted Scrooge not to have at least one misty eye by play’s end. Right from the start, you're firmly in Morrie's pocket, as Cooney burrows under your skin like some wily, but adorable, little tic and refuses to budge. You want to pinch his rosy cheeks in appreciation. Speck matches him every step, peeling away layers of egotism and defiance to discover his innate goodness.
Director Jennifer Dean keeps the script on slow boil, allowing her actors to burrow under our skin. But the third actor in this production is scenic/lighting designer Kevin Rigdon who overlays Morrie's living room with the Danish modern look of the '50s, a reliquary of sorts. The low bookshelves curve around the living room, there's a recliner for Morrie, there's that ubiquitous shag rug, and a glimpse of a red maple outside. At the finale, when Morrie dies, the back wall slides open to reveal a gigantic tree in bloom. The lighting goes autumnal – or dawn, depending on your perspective – and the shade of Morrie dances under the limbs of the mighty red tree. It's a stunning coup de theatre, a wondrous image of the life force in full flower. This image brings a tear, too.
Tuesdays with Morrie continues through February 10 at 7:30 pm Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday at A.D. Players, 5420 Westheimer. For information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $20 - $70.