Tuesdays With Morrie is not a surprising play. Writers Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom chart a predictable course and rigidly stick to it. The message: Live. Give of yourself. Nothing new there, either.
But clichés are clichés for a reason.
Actor Will Klundt performs Mitch in a new production at Albuquerque Little Theatre. Mitch is an emotionally shriveled, career-driven sportswriter who could have been a jazz pianist but left that path after the death of his piano-playing uncle. We see Mitch 16 years after college reuniting with his old prof, the titular Morrie, who is dying. During this pity visit, Mitch avoids physical contact with Morrie, a man who's quick with a hug and the occasional kiss on the forehead.
Fred Schwab’s Morrie is a sweet, wise old guy with plenty of beautiful lines to chew on. Schwab delivers them with humor, a good tactic for avoiding a buildup of too many Hallmark moments. Fortunately, Schwab avoids creating a one-note character by convincingly portraying Morrie’s growing state of illness. Morrie ages considerably over the course of the show, a sudden transformation spurred by the terminal and rapidly advancing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
That’s the map. Mitch shows up at Morrie’s house after seeing an interview with him on television about coping with his pending death. Mitch’s motives are selfish. “I’m doing a good deed today,” he tells his boss. He’s appeasing his conscience, and Morrie knows this. Still, the old professor's message is one of forgiveness, and before you know it, Mitch is showing up every Tuesday for a class of sorts, a chance to ask Morrie about death and, in a sidelong fashion, about life. Every time they meet, the teacher is worse off and Mitch is doing a little better.
The suspense, though, is not in the plot or in the theme. Rather, Tuesdays With Morrie thrives on well-crafted dialog. In the seasoned hands of Klundt and Schwab, such exchanges rarely misfire.
The show begins with a flashback of Morrie and Mitch meeting one another and growing close as Mitch takes every one of the eccentric professor's classes. Klundt and Schwab's’ chemistry seemed off in these scenes, with some oddly timed interactions and awkward hesitations. Over the course of the play, though, their closeness became more genuine. At their inevitably charted goodbye, the audience collectively sniffed its way through the denouement along with Mitch.
The career never stops, Mitch once laments. There's no weekday or weekend in his career, and this, to Morrie, is not living. The grind, burying your head in deadlines and pressure, is a sorry excuse for a life. Some of this really hit home for one reporter, who found herself baking bread after seeing Tuesdays With Morrie instead of writing a certain play review. That's not an excuse but a credit to the power of the performance.
Sometimes a cliché is a cliché because it's true.
Albuquerque Little Theatre had a choice at the beginning of this year: Shake things up or close. "To be quite honest, we were thinking this might be our last year," says Erin Moots, the theater's managing director. "The board decided we needed to make some changes in determining whether a space this large could function now. We've been here for a long time, but there are lots of other theaters around town, and we're fighting for somewhat of a small market."
The theater's been operating in the red for years, accruing debt, Moots says. ALT set some goals, some financial markers that would determine its fate. "We asked, 'Is this something that we're going to be able to continue to do?' In January, we were able to say, 'yeah.'" ALT's in the black for the first time in years, she says. Finally, the theater can leave the panic of saving itself behind and turn its thoughts to the future.
Moots says she hopes the theater can continue its recent trend of rolling out more than just the old war horses, the plays ALT is known for. "We want to offer a balance in our season selection." But there's another balance she's talking about here, too. The theater has a sturdy pool of season ticket holders who've been loyal patrons over the years. To survive, it's also had to attract new audiences in the last eight months. ALT had luck with a student rush, tickets available for $10 a half-hour before curtain. Students and instructors came out in droves to see Angels in America, a production more risqué than anything ALT attempted before. There were many compliments and a few complaints about the heaviness of the show.
As Albuquerque Little Theatre moves forward with a lighter heart, you can expect to see some additional changes in programming. "We want to make sure to continue what longtime supporters want to see but pepper the season with a wider appeal."
For more information on the Albuquerque Little Theatre go to www.albuquerquelittletheatre.org.