BWW Review: TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE at Playhouse On Park
At the beginning of the premiere production of Playhouse on Park's seventh season, TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, we learn that we are present for the last class taught by Morrie Schwartz, and that Mitch Albom, the author of the book on which the play is based, will be the sole student. But seated in the audience, I felt that wasn't exactly true. I too, was a student of Morrie's, learning along with Mitch, the life lessons that he conveyed in such a straightforward and loving way.
For those not familiar with the source subject, TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE revolves around Mitch Albom, a student of Brandeis Sociology professor Morrie Schwartz. Their relationship is portrayed as something special, one of those mentoring relationships that not everyone has the opportunity to experience, but when we do, it can change the course of our lives.
The play mostly takes place 16 years after Morrie and Mitch part ways, when, by chance, their paths cross again, and pick up right where they left off, as professor and student. Except this time, instead of a college classroom, these life lessons take place in a humble living room and with a darker overtone and an increased sense of urgency.
As a play with only two actors, it is important for the audience to remain engaged and emotionally connected to the action and the dialogue, and in this production the actors did a great job holding onto the audience through a series of interactions and conversations. Director Sasha Brätt, who has directed a number of productions at Playhouse on Park in the past, showed that he understood the space well, making good use of the stage, ensuring the characters were present and engaged with all members of the audience, regardless of their location in the theater.
Chris Richards, in the role of Mitch, conveys the optimism of youth at the start of the play, then effectively shifts to the more focused, and emotionally distant adult he has become. Richards gives us a nuanced evolution from student with big dreams to jaded journalist and his emotional epiphany and subsequent softening was subtle, yet strong. He also does a decent job playing the piano, which serves both as plot device as well as a musical underscore.
As Morrie, Gannon McHale was brilliant as he portrayed the teacher, friend, mentor and father figure with both humor and dignity. McHale also captured well the physical deterioration that one faces dealing with ALS. From small involuntary movements, to the effective use of counted breathing to illustrate Morrie's gradual decline, I forgot at moments I was not watching someone who was truly suffering. Having personally lost a friend to this horrific disease, it was sometime difficult for me to watch Morrie suffer and Mitch struggle with how to help, but it clearly illustrated how horribly debilitating the disease can be.
Woven throughout the play, Morrie provides Mitch some memorable observations on life. He asks in one pivotal moment "Are you trying to be as human as you can be?" and later asks Mitch if he is the same person wherever he goes. These questions illustrate what Morrie has learned over his long life and what Mitch hasn't quite gotten yet, but they also cause the audience to reflect on our own experiences. Am I being the best person I can be? Do people see me the same regardless of where I go? Questions I left the Playhouse asking myself.
I mentioned the music and there was a very deliberate and thoughtful use of music in key moments of the play. The piano served as a powerful illustration of one of the very things Mitch loses and regains because of Morrie. In another poignant musical moment, we hear Mitch's wife, Janine, who is a singer, serenade Morrie, giving the audience a beautiful illustration of Morrie's love of life.
As most of the action of the play takes place in Morrie's home, the sets by Christopher Hoyt are effective and simple, allowing a number of small set pieces to serve as the simple living room with the implied trappings of accumulated life served only by the imagination. The sunset-inspired backdrop beautifully, yet subtly, implied that we were witnessing the sunset of Morrie's life and it brought some light and color into what otherwise could have been a darker tone.
In closing, Morrie teaches us all that "some tears are healthy", and there were definitely tears shed by the audience that night. Whether they were tears of sadness, tears of revelation, or tears of joy for the light and life of Mitch's beloved "coach" one may never know. But one thing is certain, Morrie was a teacher to the last, and not just for Mitch, but for the audience as well.
TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE runs through October 18. For more information, call 860-523-5900 ext 10 or visit www.PlayhouseOnPark.org. Playhouse on Park is located at 244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT 06119
Photo credit: Joel Abbott