Ralph Johnson stars as Morrie and Lance Arthur Smith as Mitch.
The dying often have much to teach the living. The best theatrical example of this may be Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the true story of sports journalist Mitch Albom and his favorite professor, Morrie Schwartz.
Ralph Johnson stars as Morrie and Lance Arthur Smith as Mitch through Feb. 4 at Vista’s Broadway Theater, directed by Randall Hickman.
Mitch took every sociology class Morrie taught, and when he graduated from Brandeis in 1979, promised his favorite teacher that he’d stay in touch.
But instead, Mitch moved to New York, where a failed attempt at a career as a jazz pianist drove him to return to college for a journalism degree.
Sixteen years later, Mitch is a Detroit sports reporter with a column, radio and TV gigs and a house on a hill. He spends much of his life ear-to-cellphone, arranging all these gigs.
While channel surfing one night, he hears his old teacher’s voice. Morrie has just been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and is being interviewed by Ted Koppel on “Nightline.” Morrie explains that the disease, which causes the death of neurons controlling the voluntary muscles, will kill him, and soon.
But he hasn’t lost his sense of humor. “I’m on the last great journey here,” he says, “and people want me to tell them what to pack.”
Mitch, saddened by the news and feeling guilty about his broken promise, decides to visit his old friend in West Newton, Mass. The rest of the show is, as Mitch puts it, “Morrie’s last class on ‘The Meaning of Life’” – and Mitch was the only student.
It’s an awkward meeting – Morrie wants a hug; Mitch is uncomfortable with hugs, not to mention busy feeling guilty. Once they get through that, Mitch describes all the great things he’s doing in the world of sports journalism (including taking cell phone calls while talking to Morrie).
When he finishes, Morrie stops him with this question: “Are you at peace with yourself?”
Ouch. How many of us could say yes? In succeeding conversations, Morrie continues to ask those tough questions about core values, and to demonstrate how he answers them himself. He senses that Mitch is rushing here and there for work, but isn’t especially happy (or at peace) about it.
Facing death makes most people feel sad, embarrassed and helpless. We will all die, but few will do it with the grace and giving spirit of Morrie, who teaches Mitch not only how to die, but how to live.
“Dying is only one thing to be sad over,” he says. “Living unhappily is something else.”
Johnson’s Morrie is a mensch, kindly, compassionate, even charming and humorous, an irresistible combination.
Smith is the quintessential go-getter, with a life full of cell phones and appointments and busyness. What he gets from Morrie is exactly what he needs: quietness, a place to let go and just, as Morrie counsels, “forgive everybody everything.”
The Broadway Theater, these two redoubtable performers, and director Randall Hickman give us a lovely production of this thought-provoking play.
“Are you trying to be as human as you can be?”
“Tuesdays with Morrie” runs through February 4, 2018, at Vista’s Broadway Theater, 340 E. Broadway.
Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 pm.; Saturday at 1 and 7:30 pm; Sunday at 1 pm.
Tickets: (760) 806-7905