Encore Michigan

Review: ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ at The Boardwalk

Review June 12, 2024 Paula Bradley

ST. CLAIR–Based on the New York Times bestselling memoir by Detroit author, journalist and philanthropist Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie is the touching true story about the wisdom and life lessons Albom learned from his dying college mentor.  The Boardwalk Theater in St. Clair presents this two-man show featuring Tony Amato and Phil Hughes, under the direction of Kez Settle.

The memoir is narrated directly to the audience in the first person by Mitch Albom (Phil Hughes).  He describes his first encounter with his Brandeis University professor Morrie Schwartz (Tony Amato): When attending his first day of Schwartz’s sociology class and deciding the vibe was not right for him, Mitch intends to drop the class. Professor Schwartz intercepts Mitch attempting to slip out, and convinces him to remain in the class.  That serendipitous moment becomes the genesis of a unique and impactful relationship.

Mitch ultimately takes every class that Professor Schwartz taught at the school, and also spends much time outside of class with Morrie, whom he nicknames “Coach.” They have many shared interests, including music: Mitch is a talented musician, and Morrie encourages him to follow his aspiration of being a jazz pianist. Upon Mitch’s graduation, Morrie asks Mitch to make sure to keep in touch with him; Mitch agrees, but Morrie presciently repeats the request, asking Mitch to reiterate his promise.

While Mitch has every intention of fulfilling his commitment to Morrie, life does what life does.  Mitch’s beloved uncle—the musical inspiration of his childhood—dies, and Mitch retreats from his music in grief.  He instead pursues a master’s degree and career in journalism and soon finds himself on the fast track to media prominence. But 16 years after leaving Brandeis University, while channel surfing, he sees a TV interview with his old mentor Morrie, who Mitch learns has been diagnosed with the degenerative and fatal disease ALS. 

Partly out of guilt at not having upheld his promise to Morrie, Mitch decides to pay a quick visit.  He feels awkward upon arrival; as a journalist who conducts interviews for a living, he hardly knows how to talk to his old “Coach.” But Morrie’s wit, plus his tendency to utter the obvious truth most of the time, defrosts some of the tension, and he invites Mitch for a second visit. He challenges Mitch, the successful journalist, to return with a long list of questions, and Mitch accepts.

The questions Mitch brings to Morrie elicit some unexpectedly compelling answers. Mitch sees a renewed opportunity to make good on his old promise to keep in touch with Morrie, and returns to visit Morrie weekly. Their conversations are a blend of Mitch’s questions, Morrie’s not so subtle observations, and some life lessons that can only come from the wisdom of living a long and complex life. Morrie speaks to Mitch about funerals, regret, crying, listening, giving, joy and love; but along the way Mitch sees Morrie declining in vigor and stamina.

Morrie’s outlook never devolves into a pity party. He seems to view knowing his end is near as a blessing—an opportunity to spend his final months reflecting on what is truly important in life, and sharing those reflections with others. Even in their final visit, when Morrie barely has enough breath to speak, he offers profound words to Mitch, making Morrie’s ultimate epitaph—“A teacher to the end”—an indisputable truth. Mitch, who a few short months before preferred detachment over “touching and feeling,” continues to find inspiration from Morrie even after his death.

The message of the story is simple and to the point:  Everyone is dying, some more slowly than others, so live the fullest life you can while you have it.  It requires no plot twists or character mix-ups.

This production does not over-embellish either:  a very basic set featuring two scenic vignettes on stage left and stage right, and a cast of just two characters. Some of the stylistic elements are interesting and effective:  In the early scenes, Mitch is shown at his piano, playing mellow, jazzy tunes almost continuously as he describes Morrie. Later, as Mitch talks about his uncle’s illness, the music becomes increasingly intense and jarring, and ends suddenly when his uncle dies. The piano disappears from the set and we don’t hear his music again, mirroring Mitch’s emotional arc and detachment.

Hughes’ affect as Mitch also remains somewhat detached; even at his final visit with Morrie, he turns his head so as not to be seen crying, though Morrie has extolled the benefits of embracing one’s emotions.

Amato’s capacity for portraying the spectrum of Morrie, from his dancing at the beginning, through his physical decline, becoming increasingly feeble, is remarkable. The audience share’s in Morrie’s pain as they watch him unsuccessfully attempt to eat from a spoon, or get himself a drink of water. Amato’s voice changes as Morrie’s lungs deteriorate and his breathing becomes labored. He gracefully accomplishes what may be one of the most difficult tasks for an actor—a death scene; in this case, Amato essentially executes a protracted, 90 minute death scene.

While there are some audience tears in the final scenes, this story should not be viewed as tragic. That would be contrary to Morrie’s many life lessons: Find joy, embrace love, share wisdom.

This show is mild on language, although the philosophical content may be lost on youngsters.  Astute teens and adults of every age will be inspired by Morrie’s legacy and Mitch’s telling of the tale. Tuesdays with Morrie is on stage at The Boardwalk Theater in St. Clair through June 30, 2024.

Week of 7/15/2024

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