Moving but not absorbing enough
Tuesdays With Morrie was a book given to me by a former student as a present many Christmases ago.
I’ve heard about the book before then, I’ve even seen copies of it lying around in the bookstore, but I had reservations about picking it up and going home with it because a friend warned that it was “sentimental” and “depressing.” But the former student who gave it to me was raving—more like hyperventilating—about it and, ahem, he said that the book somehow reminded him of all the former teachers that have made a difference in his life, so I dove into it, finished it over a weekend, and promptly forgot about it.
Obviously, this inherently cynical fool didn’t really go bonkers over it. It was a nice read, profound in some places, dripping with poignancy in parts, and written in a kind of journalistic style that made the reading easy. I do have this natural repulsion for works that try to package common sense into some kind of earthshaking truths (e.g., death ends a life, not a relationship; or don’t hang on too long, but don’t let go too soon). Oh I know that common sense is not common and that there are people out there who need to be hit in the head repeatedly with it just so they can see what is obvious, but one wishes “self-help” does not have to be so, well, simplistic.
Tuesdays With Morrie is a little like that although mercifully, Mitch Albom, the author, tried not to preach. But to the cynical souls out there, it really is a cloying, sentimental take on some of life’s truths. It’s a work that’s soaked in cliches about many things: life, death, living, relationships, giving, etc. If we are to indulge in the same spirit and intent as that of the book, it affects people differently and one’s reaction to it is reflective more of the state of the person reading it.
Tuesdays With Morrie has since then become an international phenomenon. It has been made into a TV movie with Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria in the roles of professor Morrie Schwartz and Albom. It has also been turned into a play written for the stage by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher.
The play is the opening salvo of Repertory Philippines for 2008. It opened last Friday at Onstage Greenbelt. I prefer watching plays midway through its run when the production has already ironed out the technical kinks and when the actors have presumably gotten their acts down pat. But a former student who swears by the wisdom of Albom is already leaving back for Australia soon and only had the weekend to spare so we went on opening night.
Of the four of us who trooped to Greenbelt last Friday, three have already read the book and naturally had some expectations. I know that this business of comparing spin-offs to the original work is not fair since subsequent “versions” are really, in essence, interpretations of the original work by other people.
But Tuesdays With Morrie, unfortunately, is a work that supposedly flies on the wings of a particular “spirit,” or for lack of other terms, certain “wisdom” and well, “exhortations.” Here we have a professor who is dying (and who, we know, will die at the end of the play) and the whole point revolves around the lessons that can be derived from it. What made the book successful was that it made the phenomenon of “staring death in the face” not as morbid or, okay, as heavy, which is the normal paradigm. At the very least, we expect the play to be as heartwarming as the book. All right, we expected it to be witty, funny, and life affirming. These, after all, are probably the main reasons why the book created a huge devoted following.
Tuesdays With Morrie tells the story of a student-turned-sportswriter (Albom) and his sociology teacher (professor Morrie Schwartz). They met at Brandeis University and formed a special bond. When Albom graduates, he promises to keep in touch with the man he calls “coach” and promptly forgets about this promise. After 16 years, they meet again. This time, the professor is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. They renew their friendship. Albom makes it a point to visit every Tuesday, flying in to Boston from Detroit to once again learn from the feet of his beloved mentor. The visits turn into a series of classes about life, death, love, and living.
It’s the kind of material that makes for great theater because it is the words and the emotions that are supposed to take center stage. In Repertory Philippines’ staging, at least on opening night, the words came out as mere aphorisms. The emotions tended toward melodrama. It was dark and brooding and quite depressing (it didn’t help that the set was too somber for comfort). The spirit and insight that made the book likeable was lacking. But the drama was there.
The show’s relatively short running time (about an hour and 40 minutes, without intermission) and the fact that its whole cast is comprised of only two actors (Morrie and Mitch), took out most of the important context that provides critical transitional and background elements.
Thus, Albom’s transformation from being emotionally averse to being more affectionate and demonstrative toward the play’s end comes off a little contrived. When Albom finally breaks down and makes his big declaration of affection for his mentor, the scene comes out a bit awkward, less credible and satisfying, precisely because the audience is not allowed to see the stages of the whole transformation. For example, Albom’s brother Peter, who provides the key element that helps Albom in his transformation, is never mentioned in the play at all. The rest of the characters are also missing and the deletion reduces the impact of the story.
But what probably really pulled down the play for me was that the general effect was that of a dirge. Nothing really wrong with that if that’s what one wanted to see and experience. Unfortunately, and this is a reflection of my own expectations which, I admit, may not be reasonable, I expected more a tribute to a spirit, a celebration of life rather than just a dramatic chronicle of a man’s last days.
Thus, the “wisdom” tended to be flat and remained at the level of sound bites; you know, stuff one simply regurgitates rather than as insights one draws from a situation. They don’t really hit the mind. Fortunately, Jose Mari Avellana (who plays Morrie in Rep’s staging) plays the character with heartfelt aplomb so the dialog at least hits the heart. In the play, the character of the professor comes across as less philosophical, although Avellana thankfully makes the character very endearing.
The Morrie in the play is a person who cries buckets, is mournful, and seemingly full of regrets; quite a deviation from the almost spiritual, philosophical character in the book. Again, fortunately, Avellana is a great actor and in this play, he more than delivers—he shines. People who liked the book for its pathos will not be disappointed. They will worship Avellana. This I will say without hesitation: Avellana’s performance is worth the price of admission. He makes you forget that the play feels contrived in many places.
Avellana is particularly heart-rending in the scenes that show the paradox of a body giving way to deterioration while the spirit grows stronger. Bart Guingona as Albom delivers some of the play’s great moments, but like I said, the material just does not allow him to make transitions gracefully.
Still, Avellana and Guingona make Tuesdays With Morrie worth watching.
Their performances rise above the gloomy set and lighting (the stage only brightens up at one point to reveal a tree in full spring splendor), the boring costumes (both characters wear the same set of clothes all throughout the many Tuesdays), and the pared-down material. The material fails to draw in the audience and help them empathize with the characters onstage, but the actors do convince us that they do care for each other and make us care for and with them, even if we don’t really get to figure out why. But perhaps that’s the whole point.