Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Tuesdays with Morrie
My manly reserve was probably doomed from the start: the remarkable Annamaria Pileggi directs, with Andrew Michael Neiman as Mitch, and James Anthony as his former college professor, a wise old father figure, for a younger man who never really had one. It proves to be a theatrical trifecta. But my main impulse was to try to understand how this play does what it does, so predictably, and so well: reduce you to a sniffling wad of tissues.
It's not terribly long, not even 90 minutes, so you can't get mad about that, although there's no intermission. And it plays like a Woody Allen movie, though here the hero is stumbling into a search for completion, rather than trying to avoid it. There's also sentimental music and lightly, comically neurotic narration, plus a lot of self-deprecating humor and introspection, like you find in Allen's Radio Days or Hannah and Her Sisters.
And at the Jewish Community Center's black box theater, it is likewise very down-to-earthexcept for two notable moments of genuine high drama. The first comes in the middle of the play when Morrie (Mr. Anthony) struggles, helpless and alone, to transfer out of his wheelchair, and into a favorite seat in his study, in the later stages of Lou Gehrig's disease. That short but tortuously difficult business is heightened by both Mr. Anthony and the music of Puccini, as Mimi's death scene from La boheme plays on a record machine. It is quiet and slow and solitary, and impossibly titanic. It's worse than death, because it isn't the end.
And later, when it really is the end, an old American standard ("The Very Thought of You," by Ray Noble) underscores the unutterably cumbersome physicality of a dying man. But finally, the master and student are united in the struggle. These little physical twists and transits may sound insignificant, but they become intensely dramatic under Ms. Pileggi's direction, being managed otherwise in silence. Not since Eric Dean White's turn as an AIDS patient in 2014's The Normal Heart has death dug so heavily into our hearts, upon the local stage.
Mr. Anthony also gets "extra credit" (as his Morrie likes to say) for dying so beautifully, and even frighteningly. Another episode comes when he has trouble swallowing (in a third horrifying section), and it spirals out of control. One sees so many mediocre death scenes, that this all kind of leaps out at you (but basically this whole show is one long death scene, with lots of jokes, so maybe it's an unfair comparison). That's another thinghumor is inherently an intimate, unifying force, one that helps death come out of the hospital and in to our lives, in full human regalia in this staging. Likewise, theater humanizes the dying process, taking away a lot of expensive props, like hoses and tubes and nurses and orderlies and a loud, dumb TV, and odd-looking hospital food, and vitiated air. The focus is where it should be, on the relationship of the departing with those who must go on.
Also in this production we get a Mitch (Mr. Neiman) who is indisputably brasha sportswriter (now also a sports commentator, at his hectic level of success) who must be filled with "hot takes" and the occasional low-blow. His growth beyond all that becomes another element of his transformation here, and part of the softening of a hard-edged younger man, subtly led into middle age. And the implicit message is that, some day, that softening might gradually evolve into wisdom.
Through October 22, 2017, at the New Jewish Theatre, #2 Millstone Drive, just north of Scheutz Rd., just west of Lindbergh Rd., Creve Couer, MO. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.
Vocals by Debbie Lennon*
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association