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As Long as We Remember...

November 18, 2005

"Tuesdays with Morrie"

Roy Meachum

In my memory, before "The De Vinci Code," the second best-selling book of modern times was a seemingly morbid tome. (The Bible gets the top billing, of course.)

"Tuesdays with Morrie" was widely advertised as a Detroit sportswriter's paean to his favorite teacher, based on weekly visits that started only after the professor had been diagnosed with a fatal disease.

Not unlike many, I'm in a line of work that requires serious time spent reading seriously. Movies or books, I turn to for diversion. And given the premise, how much fun could there be tuning in on the observations of a dying man?

What I knew about the author added nothing to the appeal. Mitch Albom is a high-powered sports journalist in Detroit; he makes appearances on national television, none of which I've caught. The idea of Mr. Albom recreating conversations in which he co-starred offered the potential for another ego-trip.

Of course, none of my reasoning could possibly justify why "Tuesdays with Morrie" continued to move off bookstore shelves month after month, to the tune of five million copies sold!

That's what Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre claims in a press release, prepared by people with whom I've never had a quibble about - true or not.

As I discovered at Tuesday night's opening for its two-week run, the play "Tuesdays with Morrie" contains a helluva lot of laughs, which were taken from the book. The tears are dissolved in a veritable orgy of dialogue celebrating life by two men who are father and son in every way but blood.

Hotshot sports columnist Albom has written a hot scenario for anyone facing the prospect of death. And that includes us all. As the stage's Morrie points out to his returned pupil: Mitch is dying too but at a slower rate.

Since the book's author also receives credit for co-writing the theatrical version - with playwright Jeffery Hatcher - the audience knows he knows how "Tuesdays" make him appear initially like a real jerk, too self-centered to understand when Morrie first asks: Are you happy with you?

What's not to be happy? Mitch ticks off his high-flying accomplishments: a television personality and well-paid newspaper columnist who gets to go to Wimbledon and all the other major sports events. He owns a mansion whose garage is stuffed with cars. And he's got a girlfriend who suits him well enough they've been hooked for seven years. She's a singer.

Morrie, of course, wants to know when they're getting married. Mitch's answer confirms his membership in the What-Makes-Sammy-Run crowd, derived from an old book about a Hollywood type willing to sacrifice anything and anyone on the altar of his ambitions.

Going into the evening there was no question about which character - in the two-actor play - would be more sympathetic. But I was not prepared for the growth that the professor was able to instill in his one-time favorite student who admits to having taken every class he taught.

At the outset, though, Mitch Albom presents himself in a totally unfavorable light. Upon graduation, a promise had been made, sealed with a kiss to his mentor's head, that he would stay in touch and visit. Of course he didn't. In fact he treated as junk any mail from the university, including, it turns out, a reaching out letter from Morrie.

His return finally is prompted by his former teacher's appearance on the Ted Koppel show, to talk about the process of dying from an incurable disease: he has ALS, the same affliction that failed New York Yankees' Lou Gehrig.

What started as a one-shot attempt to pay off guilt turned into a series of conversations, then a book and now a play deeply enriched by the warm humor that Morrie brings to every scene, including the final curtain's.

This evening at the Hippodrome delights the intellect while still hitting the gut for belly laughs.

In no small measure, the complete pleasure derives from the casting. As the sports writer trapped into performing a mitzvah that turns into a personal miracle, Dominick Fumusa gets everything right, including the body language. I'm sure, looking at the actor playing him, Mitch Albom wished he talked and looked so good.

Mr. Fumusa, naturally, provides little more than a foil to Harold Gould's Morrie. I mean no disrespect to Alvin Epstein, the distinguished theatrical talent who "created" the part for New York, but watching Mr. Gould I simply cannot imagine anyone else in the part of the professor determined to make a strong and vital exit from life.

Until the Sunday after Thanksgiving, only next week, you have the rare opportunity to see an incredible show that not only entertains but will make you feel better about the world and yourself: "Tuesdays with Morrie" at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre. Oh, yes.

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