Beautiful Death Syndrome

Manipulative and shallow, 'Tuesdays With Morrie' is salvaged somewhat by expert acting and directing

The house lights dim, and the curtain rises on Morrie Schwartz, a popular but aged sociology professor at Brandeis University. Morrie does a loose-limbed little dance for us, and we sense that we should enjoy it while we can, for this is a play, and we are aware that by the end of the play, Morrie will dance no more. In about 90 minutes, this vibrant character will succumb to Beautiful Death Syndrome.

This is an extremely rare affliction limited almost exclusively to characters in plays and movies. Symptoms include suddenly heightened levels of forgiveness and sagacity, concurrent with a gradual physical decline that does not preclude projecting the voice to the balcony. Blessedly, cases of Beautiful Death Syndrome almost never involve disagreeable discharges from various orifices, soiled sheets, foul odors, sunken facial features, long bouts of unconsciousness, anger, bitterness, fear or crying, except among other characters and the audience. The victim of Beautiful Death Syndrome merely gets weaker and weaker, and expires with quiet dignity after uttering a few final profundities.

Often, we last see the victim of Beautiful Death Syndrome posthumously, in an uplifting image that may involve dancing in a golden light far upstage. For now that he has passed away, he is going to a Better Place: the cast party.

In real life, Morrie Schwartz succumbed to Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a particularly frightening disease because it leaves the mind intact while gradually shutting down all the body's motor functions. It is incurable and fatal, and afflicts people of all ages. It is neither an easy thing to bear nor a pretty thing to watch.

Yet it must be made palatable on stage, for Tuesdays With Morrie, currently presented by Arizona Theatre Company, is intended to be an uplifting, life-affirming story. Yes, Morrie dies, and on a couple of occasions, he mentions the indignity of being so helpless that other people must wipe his ass. He even cries just a little bit, but only early on. Because this is an uplifting play, the weaker Morrie becomes physically, the stronger he grows emotionally. This dying old man is far happier and better adjusted than the vigorous, successful young sportswriter who comes to visit and learn from him every Tuesday.

Tuesdays With Morrie is based on Mitch Albom's best-selling account of his last encounters with his favorite old professor. In the play--in which Albom's 1997 book has been lightened and tightened by Jeffrey Hatcher--Mitch has completely lost touch with his former mentor. Traumatized as a young man by the death of a close relative, Mitch exchanges his pleasant but aimless life for a demanding career as a sportswriter, book author and radio-TV personality. Mitch works nonstop, quite obviously to avoid further emotional entanglements with people who will eventually die on him.

Then, a decade and a half after college graduation, Mitch sees Morrie on television, talking about his recently diagnosed disease. What Mitch intends as a single visit to Morrie's home turns into a weekly commute to learn whatever Morrie can teach him about life. At least Morrie doesn't come off like some stern Old Testament prophet. Even as he approaches death, he's a funny guy. "I used to be an agnostic," he once remarks. "Now I'm not so sure."

This is fine fodder for an inspirational story, but the problem is that Morrie, as Mitch presents him, is not exactly a guru imparting the wisdom of the ages. The dying man's aphorisms are surely life-affirming, but they are hardly probing or surprising: Love is important. So is forgiveness. So is not beating yourself up over past mistakes. This is all pretty self-evident, and it's hard to understand how Mitch or the millions of people who have bought his book or seen its TV and stage adaptations could think it profound.

Morrie is not wise so much as sensible; it's the deathbed circumstances of the conversations that give the impression of weighty thought.

Mitch is a lightweight student. He may think of this as a private graduate seminar in life, but for the most part, he's as uninvolved in the proceedings as the average undergrad in an intro course. Mitch may be uncomfortable with Morrie's pronouncements when they hit too close to home, but he offers no real argument. He just sits there, turns on his tape recorder and becomes Morrie's guilt-wracked but passive one-man audience.

Is the sweetness of Tuesdays With Morrie sincere, or is it manipulative, exploitive and opportunistic? At the writer-producer level, one suspects the latter. But at the director-actor level, the presentation at Arizona Theatre Company is obviously honest and heartfelt.

Simplicity is the key to this production's success. Hardly anything besides the two actors is visible on stage at any time; initially it's just a piano, then a couple of chairs, finally a hospital bed. The lighting and sound design are so subtly effective that you're barely aware of them. Everything focuses on the two actors, Mark Chamberlin as Mitch and Clayton Corzatte as Morrie. They're directed by Samantha K. Wyer, an expert in getting real life onto stage, and she succeeds even with such sentimental material as this.

There's good rapport between the actors, with Chamberlin maintaining just the right, uncomfortable emotional and physical distance from the endearing but not cutesy Corzatte.

In almost everything she directs, Wyer finds one moment near the end where a simple, wordless gesture encapsulates the entire relationship between two characters. Here, it's when, to facilitate a scene change, Chamberlin picks up Corzatte to move him from a chair to a bed; Corzatte, nearly unconscious, looks remarkably small and frail in the arms of a man who has until now resisted anything remotely "touchy-feely." This silent moment is worth more than the sum of all the script's words.

A few seasons ago, Wyer directed a more thoughtful, emotionally complex play about much the same thing: Wit. Tuesdays With Morrie isn't half as insightful as that earlier show. Mitch spends the first moments of Tuesdays at the piano, playing snatches of old standards. By the end, I had another song in mind: "Is That All There Is?"

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