Tuesdays with Morrie is a Heartwarming End of the Season for Seattle Rep
Being a teacher's child myself, I have always gravitated to stories of teachers who have made a mark in their student's lives. Deborah Kerr as Mrs. Anna, Jennifer Jones' Miss Dove, Sidney Poitier's Sir, and countless others constantly inspired me.
Morrie Schwartz is a former professor, stricken with ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease as it is also known) who still has life lessons to give to (and receive from) Mitch Albom, his college student some 16 years prior. Mitch learns of Morrie's illness via Morrie's television appearance on Ted Koppel's "Nightline," and their reconnection leads Albom to move from his somewhat nomadic journalist existence to spending every Tuesday with the endearing, inspiring man who made such an impression on him during college, and to give something in return. The decision by Hatcher and Albom to keep the stage adaptation a two-character piece is a good one, making for more concise storytelling, and the focus on the two men's relationship where it belongs.
Esbjornson's direction of this play is the kind that seldom wins great acclaim, but in its quiet, un-gimmicky way it is sheer perfection, and his casting is a major part of this.
From the moment he dances onstage, theatre legend Alvin Epstein makes the most winning Morrie imaginable, with a wickedly incandescent sense of humor, and enough warmth to light a Christmas display in Macy's window. Epstein portrays Morrie's fallibilities, fears, and reawakened relationship with Mitch with simplicity and utter naturalism. It is hard to imagine seeing a more engaging performance on any Seattle stage this season. As Mitch, Lorenzo Pisoni does not have a character that is as easy to embrace as Morrie is, and the actor's physical and vocal similarities to Ben Affleck (noted by several others who saw the performance as well) are a bit off-putting. But Pisoni's performance grows and blossoms as the story plays out, and he proves himself an able match for the incomparable Epstein, especially in the emotion-wracked scene where the pair says goodbye.
Robert Brill's attractive, bare bones approach to his scenic design serves the play's focus on the actors admirably, and is satisfyingly complemented by Jane Cox's expert lighting and Christopher T. Pew's most effective sound design.
At the end of Tuesdays with Morrie I was crying as hard as anyone in the audience, yet I never felt emotionally manipulated. It made me think about how important it is to spend time with the Morries in our own lives, to repay what bountiful joys their relationships have bestowed upon us.
Tuesdays with Morrie runs through May 7, 2006 at Seattle Repertory's Bagley Wright Theatre, 155 Mercer Street in Seattle Center. For more information go online at www.seattlerep.org.