I don't get it, I really don't. Tuesdays with Morrie — first the book, then the TV movie, now the play — has been this national phenomenon, with a message that is said to have changed peoples' lives. But judging from the current production by American Stage of the play, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Albom's autobiographical book, the vaunted insights of Morrie Schwartz, the dying sociology professor whom Albom spent Tuesdays with, are little more than greeting-card homilies, conventional pieties on the meaning of life and death that you've heard a million times before.
The problem is not the handsome production, directed by T. Scott Wooten, with Chaz Mena as Mitch, the Detroit sports writer, and Michael Edwards as Morrie, who is suffering from incurable ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig's disease. (A popular disease in theater these days, it's also what Jane Fonda has as the dying Beethoven scholar she plays in 33 Variations on Broadway.) Mena and Edwards clearly enjoy each other's company, and that sense of camaraderie is crucial to the play and comes across loud and clear.
Mena is especially good as the driven, self-absorbed columnist on the make, filing stories from the Super Bowl, the Olympics, Wimbledon and the World Series, fending off calls from editors who want the copy now. His portrayal of Mitch's puppyish nostalgia for the carefree utopia of his college days at Brandeis, where he called his beloved mentor "Coach," is affectingly delusional.
Albom has turned death into something of a cottage industry (another of his bestsellers is The Five People You Meet in Heaven), and Morrie is his seminal expert on the subject. But the professor's pearls of wisdom tend to run along the lines of aphorisms like "As you age, you grow" or "It's hard to find your way in life." It's not exactly Samuel Beckett or even Neil Simon.
Edwards, a big, jovial presence, has the thankless task of playing a character who gets progressively weaker as the play goes on, and his death rattles are convincing. Still, Morrie remains remarkably lucid for someone who can't feed himself.
Tuesdays with Morrie is supposed to be about the elderly sage, but it is much more about Mitch and his sports writer's view of the world, in which every episode has a clear outcome, a neat little ending with a moral to the story. It's great stuff on the sports pages, not so great on stage.
There's one good thing about Tuesdays with Morrie, the first production in American Stage's new Raymond James Theatre. Albom's play just happened to be on the schedule when the company was able to move into its new home, and the play's popularity (the theater was full for Sunday's matinee) should introduce a lot of people to this splendid new space.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.