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Rainy Days

San Jose Rep spends some 'Tuesdays With Morrie' in touching two-man drama

By Marianne Messina

THE SEMICIRCULAR set for San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of Tuesdays With Morrie is dominated by a single Japanese maple tree, its leaves the colors of autumn. The tree is on stage when Mitch Albom (Daniel Nathan Spector) describes his former teacher Morrie Schwartz (Jack Axelrod) as "a small old man sitting under a Japanese maple." The tree is there when they discuss the advantages of age vs. youth and Morrie reminds Mitch that "leaves are most colorful near the end." In the otherwise stark setting, the tree seems to loom as silent a presence as Morrie's impending death.

Not only is the setting (by Dwight Richard Odle) open and minimal (the occasional armchair, bed or piano rides in on a platform as the scenes flow without break), the cast consists of just Morrie and Mitch (wives get textual mentions). The lack of busyness on stage can be subtly uncomfortable. You may not notice it until confronted by its opposite, a busy scene in which sportswriter Albom is covering a tennis match, and sound cues abound (David Edwards, sound design)—Mitch's cell phone rings repeatedly while the sound of tennis balls cuts across his monologue. This alternation of busy and quiet scenes sets up the tension of the play: Mitch's demanding, hectic life with its attendant sense of importance and vitality, vs. the quiet deterioration of Morrie in his home. Director Richard Stein instinctively creates competing rhythms for the two worlds Mitch lives in and visits. As Mitch says, "it's a different world out there than in this room."

Theatrical elements step in at key junctures. When Mitch is first deciding to visit the older man, Morrie's disembodied voice cuts into Mitch's harried day to ask things like "Are you at peace with yourself?" For Mitch, his Tuesdays with Morrie become a refuge. In spite of the subject matter, the play is amusing—sometimes bittersweet and sometimes funny. Spector is a warm, soft-shelled Albom, and Axelrod gives us the "touchy-feely" Morrie that Mitch accuses him of being, without slipping into schmaltz (but maybe overusing the whine). Often their physical and visual interactions are more powerful than what they say—Mitch carrying a weakened Morrie to his bed, or holding a straw cup for Morrie while he drinks. As one scene opens, we see Morrie struggle with and drop several containers onto the floor, and when he slumps over weakly, Mitch dashes into the room, talking about his flight, the airport, the traffic, not even noticing Morrie—a strong theatrical moment juxtaposing the competing worlds.

Toward the end of the play, Morrie and Mitch find out that they've both continued doing something because they thought the other person wanted it, and Morrie says "Gee, this is a real O Henry story" (referring to stories like "The Gift of the Magi"). And for the final scene, Stein has neatly echoed that line by referencing another O Henry story, "The Last Leaf." While Mitch plays his piano, the Japanese maple sheds several leaves. Wisely, the production draws its depth from this tight weave of theatrical elements and nudges what could be maudlin material toward the contemplative.

Tuesdays With Morrie, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (7pm only Nov. 14) through Nov. 14 at the Rep, 101 paseo De San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $26-$52. (408.367.7255)

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From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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