Superb cast, direction make new production of ‘Morrie’ a must-see

Aaron Orion Baker (left) and Bobby Miller in “Tuesdays with Morrie,” at Dramatic License Productions through Nov. 17. Photo: John Lamb 

By Gerry Kowarsky, Special to the Jewish Light

“Tuesdays with Morrie” is a lesson in living from a man who is dying. The play receives an excellent production from a stellar cast in the current staging at Dramatic License Productions.

The story of “Tuesdays with Morrie” is well known by now. Mitch Albom’s tribute to his mentor, Morrie Schwartz, first appeared as a best-selling memoir in 1997. It was followed two years later by made-for-television movie starring Jack Lemmon as Morrie. The stage version by Jeffrey Hatcher and Albom premiered in 2002.

Albom fell under Morrie’s spell while studying at Brandeis University in the late 1970s. He majored in sociology because that was the subject Morrie taught.

In spite of their special relationship, Albom did not keep his promise to stay in touch with Morrie after graduating. Albom had hoped to follow a beloved uncle into a career in music, but he abandoned that dream after the uncle died. The only way Albom could cope with that loss was to cut himself off from everything in his past.

After getting serious about the future, Albom got a degree in journalism and became a sportswriter. His career-first mentality brought him great success in the media but not in his personal life.

Sixteen years after his graduation, Albom happened to hear a familiar voice on television. Ted Koppel was interviewing Morrie on “Nightline” because of his resilience in the face of a fatal degenerative illness — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This segment can still seen at abcnews.go.com.

After watching the interview, Albom flew from his home in Detroit to see his old teacher in Massachusetts. The visit was supposed to be a one-time courtesy call, but the force of Morrie’s personality put an end to that plan. Both men realized that Morrie had something to teach that Albom needed to learn. The two began spending every Tuesday together, just as they had when Albom was in college.

The pull of Morrie’s charm was irresistible at Dramatic License as soon as Bobby Miller danced onto the stage with a mischievous grin on his face. Miller’s comic timing was unerring as Morrie demonstrated a sense of humor undiminished by illness. “Tuesdays with Morrie” might be the funniest play ever written about dying, but it needs a performance like Miller’s to give the audience permission to laugh at the gallows humor.

The transitions to the play’s serious moments were handled beautifully by Miller and Aaron Orion Baker as Albom under John Contini’s sensitive direction.

Baker was a perfect choice for his role because he is so adept at delineating character with subtle changes of expression. For example, when Albom spoke of withdrawing from his past life after his uncle’s death, Baker toughened his delivery to signify the change.

The play is unsparing in its portrayal of Albom’s personal shortcomings, but Baker ensured that Albom remained sympathetic by conveying the character’s inner struggles silently.

The show had the right look thanks to scenic designer Scott Schoonover, costume designer Lisa Hazelhorst, lighting designer Max Parrilla, and props mistress Peggy Knock, who saw to it that the retired professor’s home was lined with shelves filled with academic-looking books. Joseph T. Pini provided an appropriate sound design.

Some people may not respond to the play’s sentimental lessons about life and death, but the Dramatic License staging makes the strongest possible case for Hatcher and Albom’s script.