Thursday, February 11, 2021

'Tuesdays With Morrie' underlines the importance of maintaining connections

 Indiana Repertory Theatre has found ways to push safely back against the constraints imposed by the

Mitch (Ryan Artzberger) and Morrie (Henry Woronicz) form an indelible bond. 

pandemic. It has faced in a magnified sense the squeeze all theaters are feeling. Its art form normally requires in-person audiences taking in the artistic depiction of human interaction at close quarters. Now small casts are advisable, and coordination with video camera experts is mandatory.

IRT's "Tuesdays With Morrie," the stage adaptation of a memoir by Mitch Albom, is available via streaming through Feb. 21. Indirectly defying COVID-19, intimacy is a given in this story of the close relationship between a sociology professor dying of ALS and a successful sportswriter who nearly two decades earlier had been a student of his at Brandeis University. 

Mitch has reneged on a promise to keep in touch with his favorite teacher, Morrie Schwartz, as he makes a wrenching career change before finding his niche as a fiendishly busy columnist for a Detroit newspaper. Ever the competitor and perhaps out of mingled guilt and recalled affection, Mitch takes the cue of media-star attention to Morrie (Ted Koppel's Nightline)  to reconnect with the professor he honors with the sobriquet "Coach." They settle on Tuesdays for regular meetings, with Albom taping their conversations as Morrie's wit and wisdom are gradually compromised  by his physical decline.

Anyone with access to IRT's production has to accept that we see the two characters as if through a multi-layered scrim. There are two detailed real people, one of them still living, behind the characters, who are created for the stage through the collaboration of Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher. The result is mediated by   Benjamin Hanna's direction of this production and the interpretation of two seasoned actors: Ryan Artzberger (Mitch) and Henry Woronicz (Morrie). 

Both actors are gifted at depicting change and vulnerability in the characters they play. At the IRT, I remember Woronicz especally for his performances as the Poet (a kind of time-traveling Homer) in "An Iliad" and of  a troubled abstract-expressionist painter in "Red."

In comparison, Morrie is a steadier and more grounded character, whose depths have access to dependably cheerful ways of looking at things. Woronicz  plays him as someone who can process suffering better than most of us are capable of, and that brings the character the stature he must have to avoid sentimentality. A striking early scene, which a close-up allows the viewer to savor, drives home what it must be like to receive a doom-laden diagnosis. The temporary collapse of Morrie's positive apprehension of life is remarkably conveyed in this scene. From then on, though, Woronicz's Morrie is largely able to resume his life-affirming mentorship of Mitch.

Reprising his 2007 UpperStage portrayal, Artzberger is tasked with presenting a more subtly developing character over time. In roles I've seen, he is best at grappling with uneasiness and shades of vulnerability that may allow the kind of near-transfiguration he presented the first time I saw his Ebenezer Scrooge in IRT's annual "Christmas Carol." More solid, unswerving characters sometimes elude him, in my view. He does awkward just about better than any local actor, but years ago his Iago in the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company's "Othello" was inappropriately, awkwardly comic, as if single-minded villainy (even if there's no better role than Iago for presenting that quality) cramped his style.

His Mitch is rightly judged, however. His impressionable student is captivating in his readiness to be molded by someone as fit for mentorship as Morrie. The boyish awkwardness is endearing, and when  Mitch exhibits confidence, it is early on mainly at the piano (with Gary Walters ghosting for the actor) as his post-graduate aspirations to a jazz career are sketched. The death from cancer of an encouraging uncle sends the young man scurrying to find a career home in journalism.

In the later reconnection between professor and sportswriter, Artzberger puts on steely professionalism and turf-guarding rigor in scenes that emphasize aspects of Mitch's character that Morrie is always prepared to cajole him away from. The uncertainty then is largely repressed, flaring briefly in a scene in which Mitch denounces the relevance of love to a good life. 

"Tuesdays With Morrie" underlines the truth that there is still much learning to be done, and the receptiveness of the pupil gradually carries the play's weight as the teacher sinks toward death in everything but his indomitable spirit. The poignancy of the relationship, heightened by the authenticity evident in the performances, makes this show a tonic for all our imperiled hopes as the pandemic's second deadly year gets under way. 

[Photo by Zach Rosing]

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout-out Jay. This is my second time "ghosting" the piano role for the IRT production. Laura and I will be watching it over the weekend. Look forward to it.