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Man-date with Morrie

Act II Playhouse presents Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie’

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4 minute read
Mitch and Morrie: So close and yet so far. (Photo courtesy of Act II Playhouse.)
Mitch and Morrie: So close and yet so far. (Photo courtesy of Act II Playhouse.)

Act II Playhouse’s production of Tuesdays with Morrie — by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom and based on Albom’s bestselling memoir — tells the tearjerking tale of a young man who learns the meaning of life at the knee of his dying teacher. Professor Morrie’s greeting-card insights (“Love is more important than money”) take their gravity from their utterance by a man in his final days. But the sanitized death in Albom’s story offers no human feeling to support its message. ​

Sean Close’s Mitch shows commitment and earnesty, but he has his work cut out for him. Albom wrote himself as a career man whose only flaw is being too successful and whose deepest struggle is bad traffic. Mitch became a sports reporter only after abandoning his dream of being a pianist, a detail that’s supposed to give the character depth. Mostly it illustrates the world Albom inhabits, where a rich, famous man is sympathetic because he’s not rich and famous for something else.

In a truly surreal early moment, Close stands behind a large rectangular box, moving his shoulders up and down slightly while piano music plays from a backstage speaker. Close mimes it fine, but the sudden insistence on verisimilitude is baffling. Watching, it is impossible to think anything other than, “That guy is pretending to play the piano.”

Everyone is special

Throughout the show, the two men face the audience, rarely looking at each other. Even during Morrie’s (Tom Teti) climactic final breaths, Mitch awkwardly side-hugs him as though they are posing for a photo.

It feels inappropriate to blame director Matt Silva for this. He stages the show as written. The friendship involves no evidence of real connection. Instead, the two men sit in proximity delivering college-application-essay insights, acting like they invented the human experience. Mitch asks Morrie why, with all his admirers, he chose Mitch as his protegé. Morrie responds that he can see Mitch is special because Morrie is also special. All of this continues without irony.

Tuesdays with Morrie is an artifact from a time when we still accepted the premise that stories about straight white men are stories about everyone. In those stories, women and people of color usually served as guides for the heroes. Albom innovatively removed the need for their inclusion by creating a manic pixie dream grandpa.

Author Mitch Albom offers an antiseptic perspective on his mentor's death. (Photo by Fairfax Library Foundation via Creative Commons/Flickr.)
Author Mitch Albom offers an antiseptic perspective on his mentor's death. (Photo by Fairfax Library Foundation via Creative Commons/Flickr.)

Morrie never imposes on Mitch with needs or contradictions. His pesky ALS does occasionally get in the way. Teti gives a careful, sympathetic portrayal of the disease; Morrie’s struggles to eat and walk are the play’s only moving or theatrical elements. Fortunately, a staff of invisible women exists just offstage to help with the less inspirational facets of degenerative illness.

"Whatshername"

When Morrie begins to choke, Mitch stands three feet away and asks, “Do you need what's-her-name?”

Yes and no. He needs her in order to stay alive, but not to be in the story.

Her name, it turns out, is Connie. Maybe Connie and other female characters are grappling with death’s complex physical and emotional realities offstage. Morrie mentions a wife, Charlotte, and I honestly wonder if Charlotte is dead or maybe just not allowed in the living room. Maybe somewhere she and Connie empty bedpans, scrub soiled laundry, and separate pills by day of the week.

Mitch has a wife, too. Her presence is indicated when Morrie addresses her, and we hear her voice through those same speakers. Not talking, of course. Singing. No mannequin appears as we hear her voice because, while we might not be able to imagine a piano, we can surely imagine a wife.

Unlike the invisible women, Mitch spares himself any reflection on Morrie’s discomfort. Morrie’s death is clean, bloodless, and purely intellectual. It exists in the narrator’s mind, where only the parts that touched him matter.

Those who take comfort in the world of Tuesdays with Morrie, where the ugly parts of life and dying are locked neatly in the closet and sentimentality is put out for company, might consider this review cynical. However, it especially hurts to see this twisted take on caretaking in an audience composed mostly of older women. I doubt their experience of the end of a loved one’s life is so easy to package and sell.

What, When, Where

Tuesdays with Morrie. By Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, Matt Silva directed. Through July 29, 2018, at the Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. (215) 654-0200​ or act2.org.

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