TISCH MILLS, Wis. (WFRV)
It is the worst of times, it is the best of times.
Worst: The grip of coronavirus concerns.
Best: The timing for a play like “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
The coronavirus pall is all about mortality. So is “Tuesdays with Morrie,” though from a different direction.
“Tuesdays with Morrie” offers advice from a sage dying man, and that advice comes with grace.
The beautiful play is being presented in an absorbing production by The Forst Inn Arts Collective in its small-capacity, cabaret-style theater.
Direction by Michael Sheeks, performances by Zachary Lulloff and William Fricke and stage work by Nanette Macy hit a sweet spot. Saturday night’s audience sat rapt.
The play is from real life. It is about Tuesdays spent by a Detroit media guy with a beloved professor of his as the professor fades away due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease while offering advice the whole way.
A popular song now is “Let It Go.” The professor says that, too, though with even more poignant hues.
It takes a little while for the play to gain traction. Fundamentals are covered: Mitch Albom is a super-busy, work-driven sports columnist with newspaper, TV and radio gigs. It has been 16 years since he has had any connection with Morrie Schwartz, the sociology professor at upper echelon Brandeis University he promised to stay in touch with. By chance, Mitch sees a national TV appearance by Morrie giving his views on dying from a personal perspective. Mitch reluctantly visits the professor for what he believes will be a one-and-done obligation, but the professor’s engaging way and lessons easily passed hook Mitch. And, thus, the play hooks the players and the audience.
In real life, Mitch Albom wrote a memoir about the experience, “Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson,” which sold 14 million copies. The book was the New York Times No. 1 non-fiction best-seller of 2000.
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom fashioned the story into a play that ran Off-Broadway in 2002.
The play has passed under the radar of troupes in Northeastern Wisconsin. Maybe it’s because “nobody wants to see a play about dying.” But, hell’s bells, it is an enriching story worth sharing.
In this production, performances become down-to-earth by Zachary Lulloff as Mitch Albom and William Fricke as Morrie Schwartz.
Side note: Prior to this production, they were Zach and Bill. Now in the program they are Zachary and William – elevated, I think, by the importance they place on their roles. That importance was underlined Saturday night by their personal moment at the bows on stage – a giant, extended hug between the two men.
In the play story, Mitch Albon starts out as a hard sort. He has set aside music as a goal and leapt into journalism with a vengeance – top-flight games and events dictating is life schedule to the point of putting marriage on the shelf for seven years (talk about a lady in waiting!). His best of times may have been classes with Morrie Schwartz, taking all that he offered. But the professor has been wiped from his mind.
Morrie Schwartz is consistently a low-pretense person. He lives in a lived-in, low-pretense home (that’s re-created in detail in inviting ways). He enjoys imparting knowledge. A brief glimpse of course topics is offered in the play, and it is a dense thicket. Morrie has translated that complexity into everyday life, now accentuated as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) slowly diminishes his physical capacities. In the end, Morrie says, “I will suffocate.”
This is hard stuff. How can it bear watching? It is by what Morrie says and how the players perform this teacher/lesson symbiotic relationship. Morrie gives Mitch new avenues to live his life by and make peace with demons. William Fricke and Zachary Lulloff become the professor and the slate board the professor draws on, connecting important elements in life and then underlining them.
Theater is a wonderful thing. “Tuesdays with Morrie” is one of its wonderful things
Creative: Playwrights: Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, from Mitch Albom’s book of the same name; director – Michael Sheeks; stage manager – Shannon Paige; scenic design and properties – Nannette Macy
Mitch Albom – Zachary Lulloff
Morrie Schwartz – William Fricke
Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. March 27-28; 2 p.m. March 29; 7:30 p.m. April 3
NEXT: “Three Days of Rain” by Richard Greenberg, April 24-26.
THE VENUE: The Forst Inn stage is wide and narrow. The space is intimate. Seating is at small tables on two levels in a slight arc in front of the slightly raised stage. To the audience’s rear is the stage director’s space, with light and sound controls. The space is essentially a black box in theater style in the front – with additions: two chandeliers above the audience, a street lamp the seating area and the ambiance of 1920s style elements to the rear in a service area. A seating/serving area is in the middle of the building, along with a ticketing counter. The bar area out front includes the bar, table seating, more 1920s ambiance and a passage to an art gallery (rotating artists) that is now part of the offerings of The Forst Inn Arts Collective. The building dates to 1868, with assorted lives over the years. For a notable period – 1990 into the 2000s – the place was popular for productions of Little Sandwich Theatre, which Manitowoc attorney Ron Kaminski (deceased 2018) nurtured with a caring hand as artistic director/performer/do-all for a wide array of productions. The present venture is of that spirit.