As the play starts, Morrie Schwartz is dying from ALS. That such a heart-warming, honest, and funny play would begin with such a premise is startling. In Tuesdays with Morrie, produced by the Prince William Little Theatre at the Hylton Performing Arts Center’s Gregory Theater, one of the hardest trials humans deal with is explored as one of the central themes. It reduces the fear about dying by refocusing the characters on their relationship and life lessons, especially those of love.
Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to the community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” –Morrie Schwartz
The above quote by the title character of Tuesdays with Morrie, also explains the especially symbolic dedication of this production to Joel Markowitz, co-founder of DC Metro Theater Arts, who lost his own battle with ALS in November of last year. Morrie and Joel shared similar core beliefs as well as the debilitating attack on the nervous system, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, which took their lives.
Morrie is played by Richard Fiske, and Michael Clendenin plays his former student Mitch. The play, like the 1997 memoir which became a NY Times bestseller the same year a TV movie of it was produced, is based on the visits that playwright Mitch Albom made to the home of his college sociology professor, 16 years after graduating from Brandeis. It is a play of friendship that spans the generation gap, of life lessons, and of compassion that overcomes the fear of death. There are tears, which are well-deserved, but there is laughter and deepening understanding as Mitch learns forgiveness and gains courage. Morrie is one of the bright, shining souls in the world, noted by Ted Kopell, whose TV interviews led Mitch to reconnect with him.
Clendenin, as Mitch, plays not only a character in the story, but also the narrator, and briefly, Morrie’s doctor. Mitch’s loss at the end is heartfelt and does offer a sense of closure for all of the audience. Although Mitch is the playwright and it is his memoir, the play focuses on Morrie, and Richard Fiske’s portrayal is beautiful. Morrie’s loss of motor function and ease of speech is incremental and is carefully crafted over the course of the play. His humor, clarity of thought, and the glory of his humanity is wonderfully captured. The slightly mischievous twinkle in the eye remains, and we recognize the aptness of the epitaph which he chooses for himself: A teacher to the end.
Director Harry Kantrovich runs a clean ship. He knows what the center of the play is about, his cast features strong actors, and he clearly guides the designers toward a shared aesthetic. A mostly open stage, designed by Nick Mastrangelo, includes an upstage projection of a Japanese maple, whose color-changing and falling leaves symbolically represent the changes to Morrie over time. A touching moment is built with music and lights as Mitch carries Morrie into bed. It has been foreshadowed by Morrie’s quip earlier in the play, “when you’re in bed, you’re dead.” The moment also illustrates Mitch’s progress towards compassion from his earlier awkwardness at the touchy-feely love shown by Morrie.
Audiences will be moved, and nourished, by this touching, humorous, respectful, and thought-provoking production. I highly recommend it.
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Tuesdays with Morrie produced by The Prince William Little Theatre, plays through March 25, 2018, at the Gregory Theatre in The Hylton Performing Art Center – 10960 George Mason Circle, in Manassas, VA. For tickets, buy them at the box office, or purchase them online.