Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Tuesdays with Morrie
New Jewish Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's reviews of A Walk in the Woods and Lizzie


Andrew Neiman and
James Anthony

Photo by Eric Woolsey
The first time I saw Tuesdays with Morrie, based on Mitch Albom's best-selling book, I did cry at the ending. It seems inevitable. But this time, several years later, I was manned-up, and bound and determined to be strictly analytical, and to just figure out why we cry. And yes, I still got choked-up anyway.

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-earth—except 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 thing—humor 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 brash—a 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.

Cast:
Mitch Albom: Andrew Michael Neiman*
Morrie Schwartz: James Anthony*

Vocals by Debbie Lennon*

Production Staff:
Director: Annamaria Pileggi
Stage Manager: Lee Anne Matthews*
Scenic Designer: Cristie Johnston
Lighting Designer: Michael Sullivan
Costume Designer: Michele Friedman Siler
Props Master: Sarah Azizo
Sound Designer: Amanda Were
Master Electrician: Connor Meers
Board Operator: Justin Smith
Assistant Stage Manager/Wardrobe: Kristina Mueller
Piano Recordings: Jeffrey Carter

Theatre Staff:
Artistic Director: Kathleen Sitzer
Associate Artistic Director: Edward Coffield
Production Manager: Aemi Tucker
Technical Director: Brian Macke
Resident Costume Designer: Michele Friedman Siler
Assistant Technical Director: Laura Skroska
Box Office/House Manager: Natalie Piper
Assistant Box Office/House Managers: Aemi Tucker/Laura Skroska
PR Consultant: Marla Stoker/marqueemedia

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association


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