Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review of "Tuesdays with Morrie"

Tuesdays with Morrie, a two-character play based on Mitch Albom’s hugely popular book of the same name, will make you laugh, smile and cry.  The show, receiving an intelligent and appealing production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, celebrates life even as Morrie, Albom’s Sociology Professor at Brandeis during his university years, lies dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

Learning about his condition Mitch (Chris Richards), a former student of the faculty member reconnects with his one-time mentor 16 years after graduating from school.  A successful Detroit sports writer and broadcaster, Mitch is the embodiment of the hyper busy, no time to smell the roses career man.  His one visit to Morrie’s (Gannon McHale) suburban Boston home turns to two, then three, then every Tuesday until his death.  Their meetings encapsulate life’s lessons, teacher to student.  They reflect, debate, exchange views, and argue as Mitch cares for his “coach.”

The play is full of aphorisms from a man still embracing his life aura.  They can make the production teeter on the brink of being maudlin, but Morrie’s feistiness and honesty keep the show from being dragged into a gushy sentimentality.

Chris Richards’ Mitch is a good narrator.  The actor is a able to personify a man with boundless energy from his seemingly non-stop work schedule.  However, Richards doesn’t exhibit any growth in his character.  Many months go by, but there is no change, no shading to Mitch.  What you see is what you get.  Gannon McHale, on the other hand, endows Morrie with an emotionally layered performance that at times grabs our heartstrings while also making us laugh.  To be fair, the character of the university professor is the spotlight role.  However, a less seasoned performer would not be able to convincingly transform from a life affirming, aged adult to a bed-ridden, almost helpless child.  Gannon follows one of Morrie’s own dictums—that it’s okay to show one’s feelings and emotions.

Director Sasha Bratt keeps the focus on Morrie, almost relegating the role of Mitch to a nightclub straight man feeding his comedic partner one good line after another.  Bratt does a superb job slowly introducing the crippling affects of Lou Gehrigh’s disease on an individual.  Morrie’s affliction develops haltingly—from his labored breathing to shaking hands, agonizing pain and muscle degeneration.  While the interplay between Mitch and Morrie can be playful and serious the rapport between the two never solidifies into a satisfying camaraderie.  Maybe, once the actors have had more on-stage time together, the bond that formed in real-life between Mitch Albom and Morrie Schwartz will be more apparent.

Christopher Hoyt’s scenic design of Morrie’s in home study is simple--a few pieces of worn through furniture on a dark planked floor--but effectively evokes a well-lived in, comfortable, and inviting environment.

Tuesdays with Morrie, a touchingly rendered version of the best-selling book, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through October 18th.

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