Poignant, powerful ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ opens NJT season

Andrew Michael Neiman (left) as Mitch and James Anthony as Morrie in the NJT season opener, “Tuesdays with Morrie.’ Photos: Eric Woolsey

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Bette Davis famously said, and the New Jewish Theatre’s “Tuesdays With Morrie” drives that truth in every heart-wrenching scene.  

To begin its 21st season, NJT has produced a poignant and often powerful show that deals with aging, physical decline and, ultimately, spiritual awakening.

The play, written by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, is based on Albom’s memoir of the same name. 

Albom is a 1979 graduate of Brandeis University, where he majored in sociology. His favorite professor was Morrie Schwartz, a brilliant, life-affirming teacher who mentored Albom and generations of students during his long tenure at the Waltham, Mass., campus.

Albom went on to become a respected sports journalist and the lead sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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One evening, the frenetically busy Albom saw a TV interview with Schwartz, who had been diagnosed with the debilitating and ultimately fatal Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Realizing that he had lost touch with his favorite and wisest professor, whom he called Coach, Albom began to visit Schwartz at his home near Brandeis.

Albom set aside Tuesday afternoons exclusively for his visits with Morrie, a kind of personal Shabbat shared by student and teacher. There, he could put the pressures of sports reporting or getting the next scoop to one side while he and Morrie spent long afternoons sharing thoughts, feelings and philosophy. Albom brought his tape recorder along to have a possible source for a memoir for Morrie after he passed away.

Under the skilled and sensitive direction of Anna Pileggi, herself a graduate of Brandeis with an MFA in acting, the two-member cast — James Anthony as Morrie and Andrew Michael Neiman as Mitch — become more intimately related than they had been during their shared, happy days at Brandeis.

As Morrie, Anthony is absolutely credible as a once physically vigorous man who continues to lose bodily function to the aggressively advancing ALS.  Morrie loved to dance — with others or with himself – and those dances are rendered brilliantly with good humor and grace by Anthony.

In the play, Mitch brings along a brown bag lunch to share with Morrie, including his favorite, egg salad. 

“I’ll eat it later,” says the appreciative Morrie, not wanting to cause Mitch distress by watching him struggle to taste a single  spoonful of the delicious food. Morrie still has an infinite capacity for pleasure, intellectually and spiritually, but his disease-ravaged body gradually robs him of more and more essential functions.  

“It’s the dependency I hate the most,” Morrie says, dreading the increasing indignities of having to rely on his caregivers, including Mitch.

Neiman is as well cast as Mitch, as is Anthony as Morrie. Neiman has the right look and self-confident demeanor of a busy, ambitious journalist, who learns from Morrie to let authentic emotions enter his life, teaching him that its richness really resides in caring about others more than oneself. 

At the start of their weekly encounters, Albom was 37 and Morrie was 78, but the age and health gaps melt away in the course of the play.

Despite Morrie’s travails, he remains sunny and upbeat for the most part, but he is not afraid to let the tears flow when the pain becomes too much. 

“Death ends a life, not a relationship,” Morrie says to Mitch, who deeply mourns his own beloved Uncle Mike, who died at 42 of pancreatic cancer.

Mitch is tormented that he did not tell Mike how much he loved and admired him. Morrie shares his story of having lost his mother when he was only 8 years old and how much guilt he still harbors decades later.

Morrie asks the jumpy, cell-phone addicted Mitch, “Are you at peace with yourself?” 

Mitch’s answer is haughty and defensive: “Of course I am! I have a job I love and wonderful wife and am at the top of my game.” 

However, Morrie can see right through Mitch’s defensiveness.

Observing that Mitch is so obsessed with staying  “on top” that he takes assignments just so a younger potential rival won’t get them, Morrie cautions, “Do the kind of things that come from the heart. When you do, you won’t be dissatisfied, you won’t be envious, you won’t be longing for somebody else’s things. On the contrary, you’ll be overwhelmed with what comes back.”

After Morrie’s passing in 1997, Albom lovingly transcribed their conversations into what became the best-selling memoir of all time. In 1999, the book was adapted into a TV movie starring Jack Lemmon as Morrie and Hank Azaria as Mitch. In 2002, Albom collaborated with Hatcher to adapt the story into a stage play. 

Kudos to the production staff for its imposing set, consisting of an awkwardly leaning bookcase in Morrie’s home as it looked in 1995. The bookcase serves as a visual metaphor for Morrie’s increasingly challenging physical issues, which never broke his spirit.