"Tuesdays with Morrie"

By Brooks Appelbaum

Tuesdays with Morrie, on the boards at Hartford’s Playhouse on Park through Oct. 18, brings us a touching story, well acted, and directed by Sasha Bratt with a sure and sensitive hand. However, the source material -- Mitch Albom’s popular 1997 memoir of the same name -- has little dramatic potential or weight, and neither does the script, a collaboration between Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher. Hatcher’s plays -- among them Three Viewings, A Picasso, Scotland Road, and Compleat Female Stage Beauty (which became the marvelous film Stage Beauty) -- are usually marked by a singular originality. But even he cannot enliven this tale.  Tender though it is, Tuesdays with Morrie consists mainly of predictable advice and aphorisms strung along a dramatic arc that never achieves more than a gentle slope.

The plot braids together several familiar tropes: the Prodigal Son, death with dignity, and the lesson that love trumps worldly success. When we first meet Mitch (Chris Richards), he lets us know that we are about to experience a memory play. Back when he was a student at Brandeis University, he met Morrie Schwartz (Gannon McHale), who became his favorite professor. At graduation, Morrie urges Mitch to keep in touch, and Mitch makes his promise.

However, sixteen years go by -- emotionally difficult but professionally successful for Mitch -- before he sees Morrie on Nightline and learns that he is battling A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Guilt-stricken, Mitch takes time off from his demanding job as a sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press to visit his former professor. Morrie welcomes him joyfully, never having forgotten his favorite student.
This meeting becomes the first of many, with Mitch flying between Detroit and Massachusetts every Tuesday for what he calls his classes with Morrie. The drama parallels Morrie’s increasing illness and corresponding bravery and humor with the gradual transformation of the harsh, work-driven Mitch into a compassionate man who understands the crucial power of love -- for others, and for one’s truest self.

To make this story as compelling as possible, the actor playing Mitch must believably inhabit at least three personae: initially and in direct addresses throughout, he must be a winning commentator on the action; during most of this visits with Morrie, he must convince us that he is a hard-hearted, ambitious shark; and when we see him transformed, the change must bring us to tears.

Many fellow audience-members were indeed in tears by the end of the performance I saw, but for me, Richards’ Mitch is far too charmingly innocent to convince me that he could be the cold man who so needed Morrie’s wisdom. Richards himself is a lovely actor; I found myself casting him in numerous roles to which he would be far better suited.

McHale imbues Morrie with humor, suavity, great warmth, and -- when necessary --visceral pain. In his case, I only wished that this gifted performer had a more profound role in which to play out his considerable talent.

One of the most successful aspects of the production is the subtle scenic design, created by Christopher Hoyt and lit by Aaron Hochheiser. While the action takes place in several locations, Hoyt, Hochheiser, and director Bratt have elected to create one abstract space in which different floor surfaces delineate different rooms and moods. Wood flooring suggests Morrie’s home, and Morrie’s furniture is spare, the better to focus our attention on the characters. The wood gives way to a blue-painted area downstage left where memories take place. A piano sits in its corner: Mitch initially wanted to be a jazz pianist, and some of the script’s sweetest moments are when he sits down to play. A simple but beautifully painted backdrop enables the actors to enter and exit through panels only visible when being used.

While this script will never be a strong one, and while Bratt has made a misstep in casting, the production gives off a glow of good intentions and sincerity. This may seem like faint praise, but sincerity can be rare and welcome. If you feel this way, you will find this production of Tuesdays with Morrie a moving experience.

Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford through Oct. 18. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $22.50-$35 www.playhouseonpark.org; (860) 523-5900 x10. 

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