Morrie Schwartz, the elderly sociology professor who became famous as the centerpiece of Mitch Albom’s phenomenally successful novel and Emmy-winning TV film, makes one particularly significant comment to Albom, his former pupil: “Everyone is going to die, but nobody believes it.” Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher’s theater adaptation, which had a New York opening in 2002 and is now a West Coast premiere production at Laguna Playhouse, looks at death with unblinking honesty. The script is surprisingly, even brutally specific about the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), but it emerges as life-affirming, poignantly emphasizing the necessity of enjoying life while we have it.
As Mitch, Daniel Nathan Spector first appears on stage playing the piano. A Japanese maple tree with colors indicating the autumn of life reinforces the overall theme as Spector (a composer and Eastman School of Music graduate) offers sensitive renditions of “Cheek to Cheek” and “Body and Soul” while Morrie (Jack Axelrod) dances. This sequence, delicately directed by Richard Stein, establishes the physicality Morrie rejoices in until sickness takes it away.
Morrie, whom Mitch calls “coach,” is presented as a loving, outspoken maverick, and Mitch takes all his courses. But when he graduates, vowing to stay in touch, he doesn’t live up to that promise for 16 years.
Albom and Hatcher’s script deals primarily with their reunion and subsequent Tuesday meetings after Albom notices his former professor on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” and learns of his illness. Mitch is by now a nationally known sports reporter, busy, self-involved and only prepared for a brief encounter with his old mentor, until he gradually recognizes his own inadequacies and learns to cope with them through Morrie’s bluntly affectionate wisdom.
It’s easy to dismiss “Tuesdays With Morrie” as a soap opera if we take some of the dialogue at face value. Certain heart-tugging lines come in as strongly as the huge boulder that nearly mowed down Harrison Ford in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But the beauty of Morrie as a character is not every literal piece of advice he offers; it’s what he represents. Axelrod’s portrayal has extraordinary soul. He shows how a man can retain pride and dignity even when his body deteriorates and makes him as physically dependent as a baby.
Axelrod was, like Morrie, a professor at Brandeis University. In his multi-layered portrayal, Morrie becomes an example of courage without ever turning into a cuddlesome old codger, and we can see why a young man would cling to him and experience profound emotional change.
Spector is equally impressive, always careful not to woo us with an excess of charm. He projects impatience and selfishness, so that his steadily evolving compassion is fully believable.
Director Stein keeps the action flowing and maintains a fast pace, aided by Dwight Richard Odle’s seamless set transitions and Tom Ruzika’s smooth lighting. Throughout, Stein concentrates on humor as well as pathos. One of the show’s finest directorial choices occurs when Mitch’s girlfriend Janine sings, “The Very Thought of You” in voiceover. Rosemary Watson’s rendition is magical, a perfect use of music to convey emotion and the ideal voice to bring pleasure to a dying man.