Morrie Schwartz, Mitch Albom's favorite teacher and the inspiration for his book Tuesdays with Morrie, spoke fluent Yiddish. He would be familiar with the word "schmaltz." Although it traditionally refers to chicken fat used in cooking, the slang version means "overly sentimental." The stage version of Tuesdays with Morrie, now running at Geva, is unadulterated, heart-touching, tear-jerking schmaltz.
As a freshman at Brandeis, Mitch entered his sociology class with trepidation, hoping to remain incognito. But, upon his first step into the room, Professor Morrie besieged him with welcomes. As Mitch's college career progressed, he took every one of Morrie's courses, and the two men developed a friendship. Morrie became Mitch's "coach," the man with all of the answers.
However, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, Mitch graduates and, despite his promise to "keep in touch," adult responsibilities steal Mitch away from his innocence and his friend Morrie. Mitch moves to the big city to pursue the fabulous life of a jazz pianist, but jamming in dive bars for scraps isn't as glamorous as he'd hoped. So, it's back to school to pursue a journalism degree. Lucky Mitchie, he became a superstar in the world of sports reporting.
In the meantime, Morrie has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease, a fatal neurological disorder. Unable to continue as a professor, Morrie continues his calling as a teacher by professing and recording his lessons on life. When Morrie is featured on Nightline, Mitch is reminded of his old professor and decides to make a visit. These Tuesday visits soon become weekly interviews. And voila! We have a book that spent hundreds of weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, a successful stage production, and a lucrative TV movie.
A grand piano sits on stage, backed by a baby blue sky swirled by white clouds. A young Japanese maple displays its leaves. This astounding set by designer Vicki Smith is both beautiful and calming. This is the environment that envelopes the poignant interaction between the men. As the play progresses, the maple's leaves turn stunningly autumnal. This lighting design by Don Darnutzer not only represents time's transition, but symbolizes the change in the relationship between Mitch and Morrie and the realizations that result in Mitch's personal transformation.
This is the fifth production in which Bernie Passeltiner has played Morrie, and he is charismatic. From the moment that Passeltiner tangos his way onto the stage, he charms audience members into remembering their own teachers, fathers, or grandfathers. It's easy to fall in love with his kind demeanor, the gentle lilt of his voice. The affection that grows in the audience for the Morrie that Passeltiner creates makes the play's end highly emotional.
RemiSandri has the difficult task of playing Mitch over the span of 20 years. He takes the character from naïvely hopeful college freshman to a career-obsessed, emotionally castrated, midlife crisis-suffering man. Sandri effectively navigates this major life transition, while still maintaining the core of the character.
When Mitch first reconnects with Morrie, he's visiting simply to ease his bruised conscience, doing his "good deed." But it's as if no time has passed. Morrie immediately starts questioning Mitch's life choices: "Are you at peace with yourself? Are you trying to be as human as you can be?" Morrie, despite his grave illness, is exuberant, caring, and sensual, everything that Mitch isn't. He throws out one-liners, stares death in the face with humor and courage. He is imminently wise, the 21st century's answer to Confucius, spouting wisdom like, "Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live," and "I'm every age I've ever been."
It is through his conversations with Morrie that Mitch becomes an open, mature man. Director Mark Cuddy brilliantly portrays this change in Mitch through the goodbye scene. Both Mitch and Morrie know that their last visit has arrived. Mitch, always slightly uncomfortable with Morrie's physical and emotional expression, falls into Morrie, embracing him with power and passion, honestly weeping. It's rare to see such powerful interaction between two men.
Although much of the dialogue is corny, put on your waterproof mascara, pack your tissues, and head to Geva for a heaping helping of delicious schmaltz.
Tuesdays with Morrie | through November 12 | GevaTheatreCenter, 75 Woodbury Boulevard | $14.50-$53.50 | 232-GEVA, www.gevatheatre.org.