‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ at Theater J
Tuesdays with Morrie is one of the most read books in the world with more than 14 million copies sold. It is Mitch Albom’s blockbuster memoir of his favorite professor who gets amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It affects the nervous system, gradually paralyzing its victim leading to eventual death. While the sufferer loses the use of their muscles, their brain remains alert and intact, able to as the atrophy gradually consumes their body.
The play, currently at Theater J, follows Albom’s weekly visits with his 78-year-old sociology professor from Brandeis University, Morrie Schwartz – played by Michael Russotto. Mitch (Cody Nickell) took all of Morrie’s classes during his undergraduate career, but failed to keep in touch after despite his promise to do so. Sixteen years later, Mitch reconnects with Morrie after seeing his old mentor on Nightline discussing his disease.
Mitch, now a famous sports writer at the Detroit Free Press, flies to Boston to see Morrie, intending for it to be a one-time visit, but soon promises to return every Tuesday — the same day they regularly met in Morrie’s office at school. Over those next 14 visits, the pair revive their old dynamic, and Morrie shares his insights on life as his own draws to a close, helping Mitch figure out how he wants his own life to look.
As Morrie, Russoto’s performance shines from the first moment he is on stage, portraying the professor’s vitality and love of his students and life. Russotto is effervescent as Morrie doles out pieces of life-affirming wisdom and tension-cutting wisecracks. Yet when onstage alone, Russoto’s character processes his situation with welling eyes and a crumpled face. As Morrie’s condition deteriorates, Russotto portrays it with subtle changes that build, allowing the audience to watch the diseases progress. Nickell gracefully portrays a man who, through watching his friend die, learns how to live.
The play, which was adapted by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by first-timer Jenna Place, streamlines the pairs 14 visits into a moving story, giving the characters a rapport that is equal parts teacher-student and father-son. Along the way, Morrie imparts one final lesson — “the meaning of life” — to his former protege while wrestling with a body that is betraying a shrewd mind.
Place keeps the right balance of sentimentality and humor, never letting the play become overly saccharine or preachy. With the right blend of sentimentality and humor, you will have tears in your eyes at the end.
The set design by Debra Kim Sivigny takes a line in which Morrie describes his home as a refuge of “love and warmth and honesty,” dotting the space with details like a rotary phone, an antique banker lamp, books and framed family photos that suggest a long and full life. Hanging over the set are leaves and the silhouette of a Japanese maple Morrie watches from his study.
In accordance with the Edlavitch DCJCC policy, everyone will be required to show proof of full vaccination by presenting either digital documentation on a smartphone or a physical copy of their vaccination card. Individuals with medical or religious exemptions must show proof a of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hour of arrival.
Tuesdays with Morrie runs about 90 minutes with no intermission through Dec. 5 at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $30-$70 in person and $40-$60 streaming Nov. 22-Dec. 5.
Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.