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Jon Tenney and Alvin Epstein in Tuesdays with Morrie
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
Tuesdays With Morrie started life as a book and then became a television film "presented by" Oprah Winfrey, touching millions of lives in the process. It is the true story of sportswriter Mitch Albom's reunion with his college mentor, a life-loving sociology professor named Morrie Schwartz, who, in his last days, exudes vital wisdom in the midst of his battles with Lou Gehrig's disease.

Considering the story's beginnings as a sentimental memoir and TV movie, some might be inclined to doubt the stage-worthiness of this material, just as others might hesitate in casting too critical an eye upon what is clearly a personal story of human connection. In the end, the intimacy of the piece wins out, even though it's not developed enough. Ironically, it's because real lives are involved that the characters and the drama cannot be plumbed fully; still, the play succeeds on the terms that it sets for itself.

In the late '70s, Albom (Jon Tenney), a college student adrift with thoughts of a career in music and a desire to get through school without too much effort, meets Dr. Schwartz (Alvin Epstein), a sociology professor whose approach to teaching is unorthodox. As their relationship blooms, Albom is charmed by Schwartz's genuine interest in him and encouragement of his playing of jazz piano, which Albom's parents frown upon. At graduation, Mitch is admonished by Schwartz -- whom he refers to now as "Coach" -- to stay in touch. This he promises to do, and their parting is a charming, tender scene between two men of different backgrounds and generations.

Albom does not keep his promise, of course, and ends up giving up on jazz piano when the uncle who encouraged him to play dies young. After going to grad school for journalism, Albom's career as a sportswriter takes off and he gives little thought to Morrie until he turns on the television one night and sees his mentor on Nightline, being interviewed by Ted Koppel on the subject of his impending death. It seems that, upon receiving a diagnosis of the fatal neurological disorder known by the name of its most famous victim, Lou Gehrig, Schwartz decided consciously to keep living rather than give up. While the Nightline staff members were researching a story about how we confront death, a Boston Globe interview with the Brandeis professor caught their eye -- his openness, honesty, laughter, courage, and sagacity in the face of his mortality brought his story into the homes of millions, and brought Albom back into his life.

One visit from Albom turned into regular Tuesday flights from the sportswriter's New York home to Boston. The last year of Albom's Tuesday appointments with his mentor caused the high-profile, extremely busy reporter to examine himself in the light of Schwartz's advice and questions such as "Are you being as human as you can be?" Morrie is conscious of delivering a hopeful message to the world in his last year, but when Albom recites the dying Lou Gehrig's famous lines spoken at Yankee stadium -- "Today, I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth" -- Schwartz observes dryly, "I didn't say that." And when Albom decides to start taping their meetings in order to preserve something of his mentor, Morrie's first words into the tape recorder are "Everybody knows they're dying but no one believes it." Albom smiles and asks "Whatever happened to Testing, 1, 2, 3?"

For all of this, the play is not depressing. Rather, it is uplifting, both for the dancing spirit that Epstein brings to the proceedings in his perfectly pitched turn as Schwartz and for the moving, unadorned humanity of the contact between the men. When asked why he's trying so hard to give to others when he's in so much need himself, another of Morrie's unpretentious aphorisms emerges: "Taking feels like dying; giving feels like living."

However, Albom's seemingly distant relationship with his wife and the overwhelming career demands that he places upon himself are not resolved, despite Coach's efforts to help him see the big picture. This is where the non-fictional foundations of the piece prevent a deeper examination of character -- because the character in question is the living author, who has a vested interest in revealing only what is comfortable. Additionally, though director David Esbjornson has done stellar work with daring material in the past, he hasn't prodded Jon Tenney into playing Mitch with more shadings than the affable, slightly self-unaware guy's guy we see onstage. Again, if this were a fictional story, Albom might have been more compelling onstage than he is in reality. However, we do get to see how the physical deterioration of his close friend forces the sportswriter to confront elements of life which we all prefer to avoid -- e.g., the humiliation of decrepitude in old age, when eating and cleaning oneself become impossible alone.

The set, designed by Robert Brill, is understatedly lyrical and underlines emotions in a way that works on the audience subtly but profoundly. Brian MacDevitt's lighting is also well designed, though there were some shaky moments with the follow spot at the show I attended. And Epstein's performance as Morrie is a marvel of the genuine, its bravura moments never obscuring the humble reality of the character. The show as a whole is affecting enough that sniffles could be heard throughout the audience, and a few early exits seemed more attributable to the subject matter than the quality of the production. While Tuesdays with Morrie falls short of delivering great theater, it offers much in the way of open-hearted humanity.

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