Glossing over the man behind the mentor

Theater review

November 17, 2005|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY | MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY,SUN REPORTER

In Tuesdays with Morrie, a young man visiting his dying mentor brings gifts of food along on his weekly visits, including the egg salad that the invalid enjoyed in his healthier days. It's too bad the care package didn't include something for indigestion.

The audience could use some. The play, co-written by Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, might make even the most robust stomach queasy.

It is full of such happy little bromides as, and I'm paraphrasing, "I feel dead when I'm taking, but alive when I'm giving" or "Leaves are the most glorious right before they fall from the tree."

Can it be that old age is not to be feared if we stop and smell the roses? Is love the answer?

There's no question that these pithy little homilies appeal to lots of people. They're the readers who snapped up more than 5 million copies of the book (also called Tuesdays With Morrie) on which the play is based, making it a perennial on The New York Times bestseller list.

The platitudes might even be true. It's hard to tell.

In real life, the most valid conclusions tend to be the most hard-won, achieved after wrestling with ambivalent and contradictory feelings. But it's precisely that ambivalence and those contradictions that Albom glosses over.

Consider the character of Morrie Schwartz, Albom's sociology professor at Brandeis University in the 1970s: As portrayed in the play, he is an adorable old coot who creates his own free-form dances and weeps while listening to La Boheme. When he chirps to his students, "extra credit," he is asking to be kissed on the top of his head.

Albom practically beatifies Morrie. The man appears to have no flaws. Did he never snap at his wife? Or snub an acquaintance? Or humiliate a grocery-store clerk?

That said, Harold Gould imbues his character with as full a humanity as the play will allow. When Morrie first learns that he has been diagnosed with the degenerative Lou Gehrig's disease, his face reddens with disbelief and his cheeks puff out as if he literally is unable to swallow the bad news.

Gould also brings an almost unbearable intensity to a prolonged scene in which Morrie, who no longer can control his limbs, struggles to pour himself a glass of water. It is a tour de force, painful to watch.

Dominic Fumusa fares less well as Mitch. While he conveys the slickness of his hard-charging character, who is at the top of his profession and determined to stay there, he occasionally anticipates the dialogue. First, Fumusa will smile, and then Gould will say something funny. It makes Mitch appear extra-supercilious.

Of course, the script doesn't give Fumusa many nuances to work with. For example, Mitch begins tape-recording the interviews during one of his early visits, saying only that he wants to be able to listen to Morrie's voice after he dies.

That tape recorder raises an interesting question: Was Albom thinking, even then, of turning his interviews into a book? He doesn't say - but as a sports columnist who already had authored several tomes, Albom was nothing if not media-savvy. And Morrie already had appeared several times on Nightline and demonstrated the appeal of his homespun aphorisms.

If Albom had a book deal in mind, it would add another dimension to the picture. It wouldn't necessarily invalidate his devotion to his old friend and teacher. Even a suggestion, the merest whisper of an ulterior motive would make him a more interesting and complex character, but there is none to be found.

Of course, Albom isn't the only artist to paint surfaces. He brings to mind another populist favorite, someone also known for technical facility and utter lack of shadows:

Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Tuesdays with Morrie runs 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (except Thanksgiving); 2 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 27 at the France-Merrick Center for the Performing Arts, 12 N. Eutaw St. $24-$64. Call 410-547-7328, or visit france-merrickpac.com.

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