PROVO — It’s something we all know, but can never seem to hear enough: Life is about giving of yourself to others, about enjoying it while it lasts–about loving, above all.
This is the philosophy of Morrie Schwartz, a former sociology professor at Brandeis University, and the subject of the bestselling memoir of all-time, Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie (adapted for stage by Jeffrey Hatcher and by Albom himself). Both the book and the play follow Albom from his days at Brandeis–where Morrie was teacher, mentor, friend, father figure, and “coach”–through his post-graduate career, as he abandons his dream of becoming a jazz pianist and soon finds himself drowning in the responsibilities of “real” life–the hustle and bustle of being a successful sports journalist. But this is all just prologue–the bulk of the story takes place after all of this. Years later, Albom sees Morrie once again, in the most unlikely of places: on Nightline. Morrie is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease–and sharing his radiant wit, wisdom, and compassion with the world. Albom finally goes out to reconnect with his old friend. His life is changed.
The play is a marvelous adaptation–in many ways, it’s a story that is even better suited to the stage than the page–and director George Nelson has done a wonderful job of staging this two-man show. All of the sets, props, and costume changes take place on stage (often without even dimming the lights), as stagehands flow in and out like nurses with black clothes and headsets. What could have been a distracting bit of willful theatricality turns out to work beautifully–the effect somehow manages to add to the intimacy, rather than detracting from it. The actors are free to keep talking while a table is carried on or off, and the production flows around them. The sound design is just as minimal and just as perfect. The two actors are miked (but the sound was so clean it took me about half the show before I noticed), so that they can speak as softly and as naturally as they like. There are other small moments where the sound hints at the larger world–Morrie listening to La Boheme, Albom’s unseen wife Janine singing “The Very Thought of You,” the buzz of the World Series on TV, the sound of a tennis match.
What really makes Tuesdays With Morrie unmissable, however, are the two performances. David Morgan plays Morrie, and Morgan is as good an actor as I’ve ever seen; any show he is in is well worth seeing, and he’s exceptional in this one. Morgan’s Morrie is convincingly, heartbreakingly ill–but he is also overflowing with life, enthusiasm, warmth, compassion, and humor. It’s a riveting, glorious tour-de-force of a performance, and it takes place almost entirely within the confines of a wheelchair and a bed. Matthew Meese is just as well cast as Mitch Albom, the fast-talking journalist who undergoes a gradual, almost invisible change in his old teacher’s presence. The interactions between Morgan and Meese are alive and overflowing with honesty and energy. What’s more, their performances exuded the same generosity espoused by Morrie. During the curtain call, there were tears both on stage and in the audience. We had not just seen a show–we had shared an experience with these actors. That is what great theater is about.
Tuesdays With Morrie is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, and one of the best I expect to see for a long while. It’s the best play BYU has produced in years–maybe the best BYU show I’ve ever seen. It’s a near-perfect production of a sweet and life-affirming play. It is an experience you shouldn’t miss.