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Tuesdays In the Life

San Jose Repertory Theatre produces Mitch Albom's popular play about a writer and his mentor

By Marianne Messina

IN A challenging commitment of time and expense, busy sportswriter Mitch Albom once made weekly treks from Detroit to Boston so he could spend Tuesday mornings with his former professor Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

In the play Tuesdays With Morrie, coming up at San Jose Repertory Theatre in a co-production with the Laguna Playhouse, Albom (along with co-writer Jeffrey Hatcher) unfolds the story of how these visits changed his outlook on life.

"Once he reached out," says the Rep's artistic director, Timothy Near, "[Mitch] found that there was something missing in his own life that [Morrie] helped him find."

For anyone who finds themselves devoting more time to their high-powered career than to the human beings in their lives, Tuesdays With Morrie may ring a telling bell. And as Jack Axelrod (who plays Morrie) and Richard Stein (who directs) have found out, the play can be just as unsettling to actors or directors, especially when it comes time to dig deep and find connective tissue between actor and character.

"Last December, my father passed away after a few months of, you know, majorly declining health," Stein recounts. "It's kind of a play that I didn't really want to be doing at this time of my life."

The aspect that made Stein most hesitant was "watching what turned out to be a very dutiful surrogate son, sitting with his dying surrogate father in a way that I didn't in my life."

Although Stein did spend time with his father during those final months, he feels his efforts pale in comparison to what Albom (played by Daniel Nathan Spector) did every week. "We talked about this in the rehearsal process," Stein tells me. "I mean how is it possible for any of us to live up to that kind of ideal? We can try and we can certainly emulate it, but it's a big challenge. And it's a challenge for the actors, I think."

Axelrod takes Morrie's life and teachings in stride. The seventysomething actor, who taught at Brandeis University just like the historical Morrie, considers himself a teacher at heart, and he's quite satisfied with his own philosophy on living well, thank you very much.

He clarifies the fact that Morrie's pronouncements are often quotes from other sources before he recites his favorites: "Love is the only rational act" and "Forgive everybody everything." To this he adds, "There's two big F words in the English language and one of them is 'forgive.'" Axelrod is sanguine and opinionated; and he is more concerned with squeezing realism out of the text than he is with exploring Albom's personal growth. But even he has been touched by the play.

He describes a scene in which Morrie remembers his past: "I'm an 8-year-old kid when my mother dies, and I abandoned her. And that guilt stays with me all my life." Axelrod says that, for him, there are elements in Morrie's mother-son relationship that hit a nerve: "I'm very big on guilt; as it turns out, I do tend to weep; I am vulnerable—so there are areas of really close identification between myself and the historic Morrie."

Stein is still assessing the play's effect on him. He wonders if directing Tuesdays With Morrie may ultimately turn out to be cathartic in some way. "I think it's too soon to tell," he says. "I think I need more time to synthesize it within myself."

Though the play's issues go straight to the core, the reason it has been so successful—standing ovations and rave reviews in Laguna—is that ultimately it is upbeat and illuminating.

"What you take away from this play is, be alive," Axelrod concludes. "Let everything in."

Tuesdays With Morrie, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, previews Oct. 16, 20-21 at 8pm (with a noon show Oct. 20) and Oct. 17 at 2 and 7pm; the show opens Oct. 22 at 8pm. Regular shows are Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through Oct. 14. Tickets $22 and up. (408.367.7282)

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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