Review: Len Cariou Gives a Strong Performance in an Uneven Tuesdays With Morrie

Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher’s play runs at the Sea Dog Theater.

Chris Domig and Len Cariou star in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, directed by Erwin Maas, for Sea Dog Theater at St. George’s Episcopal Church.
(© Jeremy Varner)

At first glance, St. George’s Episcopal Church seems like a stunning venue for a play. Certainly, an arresting tableau greets the audience that arrives for Sea Dog Theater’s revival of Tuesdays With Morrie: one lonely piano centered in the vast, empty chapel, with performer Chris Domig (also Sea Dog’s artistic director) playing soft jazz. The image is both striking and serene, and this holy space feels apt for paying tribute to Domig’s co-star, theater legend Len Cariou, who soon joins him at the piano.

Then the two begin speaking. As the venue’s acoustic challenges become evident, the initial thrill fades. Good chunks of director Erwin Maas’s bare-bones production are difficult to hear, with the two performers’ voices swallowed up by echoes. This proves a particular challenge in the opening scenes, which establish cocky Brandeis student Mitch (Domig) finding an unlikely mentor in kindly sociology professor Morrie Schwartz (Cariou).

But Cariou will not be defeated. A Tony Award winner for originating the title role of Sweeney Todd in 1979, Cariou’s baritone still booms. When Morrie is diagnosed with ALS, Cariou lets that kind smile flicker as the news sinks in. The warm demeanor dims.

Then suddenly, startlingly, he bellows into the overwhelming abyss of the chapel: “Make the sun die, make the sky black! No more laughter, no more singing! I’m gonna die!”

Len Cariou plays Morrie in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, directed by Erwin Maas, for Sea Dog Theater at St. George’s Episcopal Church.
(© Jeremy Varner)

Morrie’s explosion of fear, confusion, and rage jolts the play awake. Cariou overcomes the venue’s acoustic limitation. And from that point, he makes the evening his own, lending the sentimental twee of Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom’s play — adapted from Albom’s 1997 best-selling memoir of the same name — greater dramatic weight than it really deserves.

Cariou puts a rueful, almost sardonic spin on Morrie’s life lessons. The pearls of wisdom come thick and fast after Mitch sees Morrie’s end-of-life journey featured by Ted Koppel on Nightline. Guilt-ridden at failing to keep up with his college mentor, he pays Morrie an obligatory visit. But one visit quickly turns into weekly sessions, as Morrie seeks to remind the successful yet spiritually unfulfilled Mitch of the truly valuable things in life.

Cariou lends an easy, unforced air to even Morrie’s most painfully clichéd pearls of wisdom, from “Life is not a competition” to “Love is the only rational act.” More than that, he finds depth beyond what the text offers by playing Morrie as an almost embittered figure, his life lessons part of a character designed to make up for a more disappointing life.

Len Cariou plays Morrie, and Chris Domig plays Mitch in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, directed by Erwin Maas, for Sea Dog Theater at St. George’s Episcopal Church.
(© Jeremy Varner)

The text itself is not nearly so dark. Hatcher and Albom’s adaptation shies away from the ugliest indignities of an end-of-life journey. Cariou spins their reticence to his advantage, suggesting that Morrie’s wise grandad persona is a fiction crafted for Mitch’s benefit. There is a tougher pain underneath it. But that’s not what Mitch needs to hear — or, for that matter, what audiences want to hear.

Domig holds his own opposite Cariou, but Mitch offers comparatively little depth. His career obsession feels superficial; his guilt at once fleeing the bedside of a beloved uncle is intriguing, but underexplored.

Maas’s staging finds its footing in the play’s later scenes, as Mitch and Morrie edge closer to the audience and become easier to hear. And despite the venue’s challenges, staging Morrie with few props and simple transitions does prove elegant and effective.

But ultimately, it is Cariou who makes the evening shine. Late in the play, when Morrie is barely mobile, he persuades Mitch’s wife to sing for him. (Sally Shaw provides the vocals.) Cariou lights up at the beauty of her voice, grinning with childlike wonder. Somehow, he gives deeply felt, palpable life to another tired cliché: inside, he is dancing.

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Tuesdays With Morrie

Closed: April 20, 2024