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Born To Die

Tuesdays with Morrie teaches some grave lessons.

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There are two kinds of people in the world: those who enjoy inspirational literature and those who wouldn't want to share an elevator with them.

The easily chewed, pre-digested two-man show Tuesdays with Morrie, on stage at Circuit Playhouse through August 28th, was custom-made for those people who really believe that chicken soup qualifies as soul food. This true story by sportswriter, radio personality, and ESPN regular Mitch Albom chronicles the last days of Morrie Schwartz, a beloved sociology professor from Brandeis University, who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1994. Schwartz, a free-spirited man who lived to dance and loved to teach, spent his rapid decline answering letters from thousands of admirers, recording the events of his physical degeneration in vivid detail, and generating life-affirming aphorism after life-affirming aphorism.

Schwartz became a familiar figure on television in the mid-1990s after a trio of appearances on ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel. Something about the calm old man's ability to contemplate paralysis and death without flinching and to describe with a nearly childlike wonder the experience of having muscles that no longer respond to the brain's commands captured the public's imagination. The reports also caught the attention of Albom, Schwartz's former student, who took time out of his hectic schedule to spend Tuesdays in quiet conversation with a favorite professor.

Albom's stage adaptation of his book Tuesdays with Morrie strips out almost all of the original story's social content and replaces it with schmaltzy lines about hugs and their deeply therapeutic qualities. Schwartz's career-defining moments came during the civil rights era when the Vietnam War was raging, and his sociology lessons inspired such radical thinkers as Angela Davis and Jerry Rubin. The book is set during the racially divisive O.J. Simpson trial, but the play skips all the interesting stuff in order to tell the facile story of an incontinent old man teaching a tight-assed whippersnapper that death is a natural part of life, forgiveness is an essential part of happiness, it's okay to be "touchy-feely," and sometimes it feels good to cry. A critic aptly described the film version of Morrie as a geriatric Patch Adams, and that goes double for the play.

Occasionally, a virtuoso performance can save an otherwise wretched piece of theater, and aging himself 30 years to play Schwartz, Dave Landis delivers the goods. Landis' struggle to eat a spoonful of egg salad is pitiful and hard to watch. His transitions from joy to numbness to despair and back to joy are thoroughly convincing. These moments of helplessness give Landis' diarrhetic outpouring of fortune-cookie wisdom a tolerable dramatic context.

Michael Gravois' set takes its inspiration from wonderfully colorful bar-cloth patterns of the 1950s and Leonardo Da Vinci. Perfectly functional and easy on the eyes, Gravois' classically expressionist environment, enhanced with warm lighting by Thorn Michaels and a subtle soundscape from Rory Dale, is the understated star of this hyper-extended funeral.

The imminently likable Andrew Weir, who leaves Memphis for Chicago at the end of Morrie, is functional as Albom, although it's tough to imagine that the lightweight actor could have ever been a semi-pro boxer. The role, however, is tissue-paper thin, and the baby-faced Weir lacks the age and gravity to give it much dimension.

The big question: Did we really need a stage adaptation of Tuesdays with Morrie? The hardback edition spent four years at the top of the best-seller lists. It was followed by a monstrously successful paperback release and an Emmy-winning made-for-TV movie starring Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria. Fans of Schwartz's life lessons can even hear the dead man talking by downloading audio files at MitchAlbom.com. At this point, it wouldn't be shocking to discover that a Tuesdays with Morrie videogame was in the works.

Through August 28th

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