There is no ‘point’ in loving; loving is the point.
Tuesdays with Morrie is the real-life story of sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, in the final stages of his life as he learns how to die (and what that means to live) and imparts life lessons to an old student of his, Mitch Albom.
I first read Albom’s best-selling book – which became a movie, and then a theatre production – in the Easter school holidays of Year 11. It changed me, and I don’t say that lightly. I read it twice, quickly. I then vividly remember transcribing quotes from the book to a notepad and filling up page after page with inspiration. Whenever I’m asked to name a favourite book, Tuesdays with Morrie invariably makes the list (because, honestly, who can choose just one favourite book?). So, on Wednesday night, I take this longstanding relationship with the book to Queanbeyan’s theatre, The Q, to see it recreated on stage, starring locals Graham Robertson as Morrie and Dave Evans as Mitch.
Mitch’s friendship with Morrie begins at university in the 1970s, with Mitch soaking up Morrie’s wisdom – beginning by taking his lectures, to turning up at his office, to having lunch at the cafeteria (where eating plays second fiddle to animated conversation) – usually on Tuesdays. Morrie is the sort of person who quite literally dances to his own beat. But way leads onto way: Mitch graduates, and while he emphatically promises to keep in touch with Morrie, life steps in: profoundly affected by his young uncle’s death from pancreatic cancer, Mitch abandons ambitions as a jazz pianist and throws himself into the hustling world of sports journalism, living each day to the fullest, not missing a second (or so he thinks). Mitch spreads himself thin, trying to cover as much ground in life as possible, with little thought for his old professor.
Fast forward 16 years, and late one night Mitch is flicking through TV channels and spots Morrie on Ted Koppel’s Nightline. Morrie’s dying of ALS (remember the ice bucket challenge?) aka Lou Gehrig’s disease aka motor neuron disease. He’s agreed to share with a national television audience what dying is all about, in the hopes that people can learn something from it. (Bear in mind this is a true story – you can see these very episodes on YouTube.)
Mitch hops on a plane to pay his respects to Morrie, intending to visit once – a guilty obligation. But as soon as he arrives he’s captivated again like he was 16 years ago, and agrees to drop in every Tuesday. Morrie wants to treat these visits as lessons, and asks Mitch to be a diligent student; to prepare questions for Morrie to answer. In the lessons they cover life, death and love – the latter being the only rational act – as Morrie grows weaker, and Mitch fights off the pressures from his work.
I can appreciate it sounds a bit weird to endorse a play that’s essentially about someone dying – and Robertson portrays this in equal measures of punch and sensitivity – but Morrie’s death is in fact a vehicle for the real story: how to live. Like the book, the lessons are conveyed with fierce warmth, and here Robertson really shines. Despite being wheelchair-, La-Z-Boy- and bed-bound for most of the play, there’s no mistaking the very nature of Morrie – a testament to Robertson’s skill and respect for the role.
The play itself is focused on the relationship between Morrie and Mitch, with only side references to the superficial life Mitch leads which is inconsistent with the teachings of Morrie. While there are occasional references to how much the time with Morrie changes Mitch, a fault of the adaptation is how little it draws on the key conversations, quotes and exchanges conveyed in the book which are instrumental in these changes in Mitch. Overlooking these exchanges means the emotional reaction of Mitch by Morrie’s bedside near the end loses its potency.
Evans and Robertson keep perfect pace with one another, particularly when they’re trading witty remarks. However, at times Evans shows restraint in his role as Mitch, serving more as a platform than a companion to ensure the character of Morrie receives the audience’s focus. This would be smart if Evans was paired with a weaker actor, but Robertson is never going to be outshone as Morrie. Evans evidently has the skill to really embrace Mitch – to make him bigger and more complicated – and should.
Given how immobile his co-star is, Evans does a wonderful job in filling the space, and making the stage feel like a working home. Some lighting to reflect the changing seasons, and many – many – more books would perfect the setting.
No matter the format, Tuesdays with Morrie is a remarkable story which needs to be told, and told again. This stage production does justice to the story’s warmth, spirit and heart. Bring tissues.
Date: 8pm-9.30pm, Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Where: The Q, Queanbeyan
Cost: $47 for non-subscribers (as a subscriber I paid $37)
Value for money: High
Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile
Want more? Buy tickets here. Read some of the beautiful quotes here.