While visiting my family in the south Bay Area of California the other week, my brother suggested that we take in a play at a small theatre in San Pedro Square, The Tabard Theatre Company, San Jose. I recalled the name of the play, Tuesdays with Morrie, though I had never seen it performed. We arrived with plans to pick up some light dinner along the square. As we stood at the crossway, I noticed that about half a doze pedestrians to my right wore San Jose Sharks (hockey) jerseys. To my left, one guy in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey strode along. I was not sure that either team would be interested in a guy going to the theatre on game night. Fortunately, at about the time we began to look for a table in the restaurant, the fans were heading off for the opening face off.
Tuesdays with Morrie is about Mitch (James Creer), who is a sports commentator. This seemed appropriate as we could hear the fans cheering for the game in the bar beneath the theatre throughout the play. Mitch had been a sociology student in Morrie’s (Kurt Cravenhorst) classes in college. They both loved ideas and music. Morrie danced to his own interpretations of songs. Mitch joined his uncle in jazz gigs after he graduated from college. In the opening scenes of the play, we see the student and professor interact about learning and life. Several times Mitch sat at the piano constructing cords and giving us enough melody to recognize the tunes.
Mitch’s uncle became ill and died rapidly from cancer. Mitch withdrew from his music adventures, returning to college to earn another degree in journalism. He found his niche in sports programming. Sixteen years pass, with Morrie teaching his classes and Mitch building his career. Morrie begins to have physical difficulties, for which he is diagnosed with ALS. Mitch happened to see a TV interview with Morrie. He took a break one day to stop in to see Morrie. This re-kindled their friendship, leading into weekly meetings, on Tuesdays.
The play is based on the memoir by Mitch Albom, about his weekly visits with Morrie Schwartz. The themes about working to the exclusion of one’s personal life, appreciating each day and moment, and being with someone in times of need are predictable, though each of us has to discover these at some time and through some means. The challenge for the actors is to avoid melodramatic, sentimental tear-jerking, or laughter-in-the-face-of-death presentation of the play. Both are options with the script, but neither brings the empathy that the play deserves. We need not go home with a pocket full of soggy tissues from crying or laughing too much.
The means by which Creer and Gravenhost achieve this is through their use of their bodies throughout the play. While on the surface, physicality in a play about two guys talking to each other once each week seems contradictory. But, Creer and Gravenhost break through this obstacle (even while the hockey fans below are hollowing about the puck work and checking going on during the game on TV).
At he beginning of the play, Mitch was energetic going from classroom to the piano practice room. Morrie gestured as he taught classes, or improvised steps on the dance floor. In the first scene in which they meet again, Morrie was constrained from walking easily, relying on a walker to support and guide his legs. Soon, he would be in a wheelchair, which became more contorted with each scene, until he could barely breathe propped up in bed.
In parallel fashion, Mitch became constrained by the cell phone that constantly interrupted his interactions with Morrie. Work intruded on his life. Unlike the youthful student, embracing his professor, he could hardly go beyond a courteous hand shake. But, the more that Morrie became unable to use his body, the more that Mitch reaches out, holding Morrie’s hand in support, and eventually helping to reposition him in the wheelchair. As Morrie gasps for breath, the muscles in his lung to weak to function, Mitch rested his head on Morrie’s chest.
When Morrie died, Mitch returned to open the piano. He played a few chords; strung together a few melody riffs. Morrie appeared behind a series of picture windows dancing. Words can guide us, organize our understanding. But, sound and movement are how we act