Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tuesdays with Morrie by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom

Dave Evans and Graham Robertson

Tuesdays with Morrie by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, based on the book by Mitch Albom, presented by Queanbeyan City Council. Director: Liz Bradley; set design, Brian Sudding; lighting, Andrew Snell; sound, James McPherson.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 3 – 15, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 3

This is a nice production of a nice play.  Liz Bradley’s directing has placed the tone of the play precisely on the level.  There is no sliding down into the possibility of underplaying in order to avoid the other possibility – which the script easily allows – of overplaying up into a sentimental, even mawkish, heightened emoting style.

Of course, her actors need to recognise the risks.  Both Graham Robertson as Morrie Schwartz and Dave Evans as Mitch Albom succeed in making the lives of the mentor, dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the one-time student who visits every Tuesday – even at the graveside – become a reality for us, watching.  The audience on opening night was attentive and appreciative – a nice audience to match.

Tuesdays with Morrie was previously presented at The Q in 2011 (reviewed on this blog March 10) by Ensemble Theatre from Sydney, directed by Mark Kilmurry.  It is interesting to see different theatrical approaches at work.  Kilmurry used much more stylisation to make use of the device where the character ‘Mitch Albom’ shifts in and out of speaking directly to the audience as the Mitch Albom who actually was in this special relationship with his sociology lecturer, Morrie Schwartz, (and wrote the book as a memoir after Schwartz died), and then playing the role of himself in naturalistic scenes with Morrie.

That approach worked theatrically, especially as I noted for a young audience.  But Liz Bradley kept to a more even, essentially naturalistic style.  The result, perhaps especially appropriate for an older age group, was more like an intimate chat.  We were able to feel more in touch with the character of Mitch, with his internal contrast – if not conflict – between his musician self and his go-getting journalist self.  It became clear why he had married a singer, whose voiceover singing “The Way You Are” to Morrie (sung beautifully by Dylan Muir) was a high point in the show.  And we understood then why Morrie Schwartz was so important to Mitch, keeping him grounded in his deeper artistic self.  Liz Bradley made the play warmer than Mark Kilmurry had done – an important achievement.

Yet the real Mitch Albom, and his co-playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, did not make it easy to achieve this warmth.  The short scenes and constant chopping and changing between direct storytelling and acting out scenes are difficult enough to do without breaking the theatrical illusion, and therefore the mood.  But what to do about getting the dead Morrie off stage?

Using a reclining chair which smoothly became Morrie’s bed for his final scene worked well.  Graham Robertson could have been left there out of the spotlight, while Dave Evans came on to complete the play, as if he were at the graveside, but this could have been confusing, if not a bit ghoulish. 

So, on the only occasion in this production, we moved out of naturalism into symbolism.  Upstage the rear wall of Morrie’s lounge room opened to reveal a shaft of light shining downstage.  Morrie, as if still affected by his disease (but not quite at the point of death), awkwardly got out of his chair, turned towards the light and steadily exited, the light in our eyes absorbing his image, and the curtain closing behind him.

At one level, this represents his funeral, of course.  But on a higher level, it appears as if he has ascended into some spiritual realm.  The theme of the play is about Mitch’s discovering his loving relationship with Morrie, which I felt was established well in the naturalistic play.  But seeming to turn Morrie into something like a god seemed a heavenly stairway too far for me; and indeed for Mitch, who dealt with the death in a quite practical and appropriate way, with a little gentle piano memorial music going into blackout.

This production of such a well-known play, a favourite according to Liz Bradley’s notes of The Q’s Artistic Director Stephen Pike, is absorbing and, in its original meaning of ‘precise’ and ‘appropriate’, is certainly nice.  Another success at The Q.